Tag: Politics


Greetings from Bakersfield!

Shawn Schwaller

“Greeting from Bakersfield California” reads an early twentieth century postcard touting the various tourist attractions in the city and greater region. Bakersfield is mostly known as the home of the “Bakersfield Sound,” a style invented by country music legends such as Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the 1950s and 1960s, and as a destination for migrants who came from places like Oklahoma during the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl. It is located in the southern part of California’s Central Valley, a multibillion-dollar agricultural region that provides a significant portion of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, Bakersfield was on the frontlines of racism and extremism, and a city located in a county where police corruption and law enforcement official-involved deaths ranked among the highest in the country.

Bakersfield, and Kern County as a whole, is the heart of California’s “Deep South” when it comes to race relations, the immigration debate, and the politics of white minoritization. Unlike the Deep South, where African Americans have faced a long legacy of white supremacy, Latinx peoples who are composed of mostly Mexican-Americans, make up over fifty percent of Kern County’s population. Importantly, the Latinx population faces the brunt of white supremacist and neo-Nazi racial violence, corruption in county law enforcement agencies, and a white working- and middle-class public who openly shared their racist view of Mexican-Americans as they boldly pledged support for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential contest.

In the 2012 presidential election, fifty-seven percent of Kern County’s population voted for Mitt Romney. Four years later, a majority voted for Donald Trump. This is in a state where over sixty-one percent of the population voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Latinx population in the county increased dramatically. Bakersfield, the urban center of the county, is home to approximately 360,000 residents, of which nearly half are of Latinx. Among California counties, it is home to the state’s fastest growing population and much of this growth is due to the increase in the Latinx population.

Despite the undeniable importance and visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement as the twenty-first century took off, the county with the highest number of the kinds of deaths protested by the movement is Kern County, and the victims tend to be Latinx. Between 2008 and 2014, Kern County law enforcement officials killed 3.54 residents per 100,000 on average each year, the highest number among all counties in the U.S.[1] In 2015 alone, fourteen people were killed by law enforcement officials in the county, equaling 1.5 deaths per 100,000. That’s three times the total in Los Angeles County, which ranked forty-fifth in the U.S. During the same year, New York Police Department officers policing the five boroughs—a population ten times larger than Kern County—killed only ten people.[2] While a vast majority of the victims were Latino, most of the deaths came at the hands of white males who compose approximately seventy-five percent of law enforcement officials in the county.


Although protest and candlelight vigils followed these deaths, the lack of a “Latinx Lives Matter” type of movement, or multiethnic and racial alliance against police brutality on a broader level, illustrates the vulnerable state of the population in red California’s urban center.

The high rate of law enforcement-related deaths garnered a national media spotlight and prompted attention from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In December 2016, State Attorney General Kamala Harris and the State Department of Justice began a civil rights investigation based on “excessive use of force and other serious misconduct” committed by law enforcement officials employed in the county. The announcement regarding the investigation failed to mention that most of the victims of this possible excessive force and misconduct were Latino males. Although protest and candlelight vigils followed these deaths, the lack of a “Latinx Lives Matter” type of movement, or multiethnic and racial alliance against police brutality on a broader level, illustrates the vulnerable state of the population in red California’s urban center.

In Kern County, the Latinx population is burdened with worry about not only police brutality, but also racist violence from the general public and anti-immigrant sentiments that place the lives of undocumented peoples in danger of incarceration and deportation. The lack of attention paid to the systemic racism and law enforcement related deaths in Kern County faced by the Latinx population also stems from two other issues. One of these is the fact that race relations tends to be viewed in binary terms as a black-and-white problem. This continues to marginalize Latinx peoples from the broader narrative of race and ethnic relations throughout history, and prevents an accurate understanding of the diverse multicultural society that is twenty-first century California. The second issue is the mainstream U.S. American social and cultural notion that Latinx peoples are only recent arrivals. This misconception stretches even further to wrongfully rationalizing that Latinx peoples have no meaningful history or roots in the present-day U.S., and as such make little contributions to society. The presence of a vulnerable undocumented population, as well as flawed notions of race relations and the Latinx-American experience, fuels a collective inability to bring greater oversight to the law enforcement corruption and systemic racism in Kern County.

Within the first few hundred days of his administration in 2017, Donald Trump sent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials deep into the heart of even the smallest towns in central and northern California to round up undocumented immigrants. Passed in April 2017, Senate Bill 54 classified California as a “sanctuary state” and guaranteed that state resources would not contribute to the detainment and deportation of undocumented immigrants. Elected in 2006, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood had proposed to go against the California state government and make it a “non-sanctuary county.” However, the Latinx community has faced more dangerous and time-spanning social conditions that have threatened their lives and well-being in Kern County.

Law enforcement-involved deaths of Latinx residents of Kern County was not new in 2015. Between 2005 and 2015, most of the seventy-nine law enforcement-involved killings occurred on the southeast side of Bakersfield, which is an area where Latinx peoples are the majority. On the evening of 7 May 2013, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies approached David Silva as he slept across the street from the Kern County Medical Center waiting to get help for bouts of depression. Upon their approach, Sheriff’s officers attempted to wake him up, then proceeded to handcuff him as he woke up, fearing he was on PCP. As Silva tried to stand up, likely in somewhat of a state of shock after being abruptly awoke by Sheriff’s deputies, the officers unleashed a police dog, which bit him thirty times. Sheriff’s deputies then struck him several times with batons, hog-tied him, and placed a shield on his head. Before leaving the scene, Sheriff’s deputies confiscated phones used by witnesses to record their treatment of Silva. After vomiting throughout the evening in custody of the Sheriff’s Department, the 33-year-old father of four stopped breathing and died just after midnight the next day.[3] In May of 2016, Kern County agreed to pay $3.4 million to settle a suit brought on by Silva’s family.

Another one of the more controversial law enforcement-related killings came in November of 2014 when Bakersfield Police Department officers pursued James Villegas in a high-speed chase. After wrecking his vehicle, the 22-year-old Villegas was fired upon and killed by police officers. According to officers on the scene, he approached them in a confrontational manner and reached for his waistband after exiting the wrecked vehicle.

Witnesses of the incident involving Villegas told a different story. At least two witnesses testified that he put his hands in the air after exiting the wrecked vehicle and was waiting for the officers to approach him as they abruptly fired their weapons at him. As was the case with a majority of law enforcement-related deaths in Kern County that occurred both before and after the Villegas incident, the officers who killed him were cleared of any wrongdoing.[4] A few days after Villegas’s death, 200 community members held a candlelight vigil with signs that read such things as, “Hands Up. Don’t Shoot.” “We just want to raise awareness,” claimed David Silva’s brother Christopher at the vigil. Silva passionately continued with this strong message: “There’s something very wrong in this town.”[5]

 Silva passionately continued with this strong message: “There’s something very wrong in this town.”

As if the police-related killings in early twenty-first century Kern County were not enough, the disturbing behavior exhibited by law enforcement officials sheds light on a wide range of social and cultural problems in the region’s law enforcement community. Following the death of James Villegas, veteran officer Aaron Stringer entered the coroner’s office, reached under the sheet covering his deceased body, fondled him, and tickled his toes in front of other officers. He then proceeded to twist Villegas’s neck while joking about the human body in the condition of rigor mortis, while stating, “I love playing with dead bodies.”[6]

In what was at the time not made public, the City of Bakersfield paid the Villegas family $400,000 to settle the case shortly after the incident. The Public Records Act allows city and county law enforcement agencies to keep settlements private, but if a member of the public asks for the records they must be provided. In 2017, after requesting records of settlements stemming from possible police misconduct, Bakersfield area news agencies broke a story that uncovered an expensive history of payouts. Between 2010 and 2017, the police department paid out over $5 million to settle cases involving police while the County Sheriff’s Department paid out $22 million.[7] In April of 2018, Sheriff Youngblood was caught on video stating that it was better, from a financial standpoint, to kill a suspect than “cripple” them, “because if you cripple them you have to take care of them for life, and that cost goes way up.”[8] Similar to the investigation launched by State Attorney General Kamala Harris in 2016, Youngblood’s comments were covered in the national media; but the fact that most victims were Latinx was left out. In June of 2018, Youngblood was re-elected as Kern County Sheriff by over sixty-four percent of the population. “I feel good,” stated the sheriff at his election night party held at the legendary Buck Owens Crystal Palace. “This is exactly what we thought would happen. We’re just going to go back to work and serve this community.”[9]

A few years before the Villegas incident, officer Stringer plead no contest to misdemeanor reckless driving and was able to get charges dropped on a 2010 hit-and-run and driving under the influence charge. Stringer, who retired following the Villegas incident, was not exactly a model citizen himself amongst other law enforcement officials. Unfortunately, he was not alone.

Other local law enforcement officials exhibited similar behavior that certainly does not rest within the bounds of what Donald Trump, and other presidents before him like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan referred to as “law and order.” In 2011, Bakersfield police officer Scott Drewry left the department after he was charged with a misdemeanor for throwing a rock through the window of a local business because of a civil depute the business owner had with one of his family members. In July 2012, Officer Albert Smith received a thirty-day jail sentence and three years of probation after he pled no contest to a misdemeanor charge of engaging in sex with a prostitute. Smith reportedly engaged in sex acts with at least three local prostitutes while on duty in his patrol car, as well as other undisclosed locations. The court dropped six of the seven charges he faced and Smith resigned shortly before the hearing.

“The 357 other men and women that work at the Bakersfield Police Department are here and dedicated to public safety,” claimed Chief Williamson after the Smith conviction, stating also that “they’re dedicated to serving our community” and “they are committed to going out every day, day in and day out, and putting their lives on the line to keep our citizens safe.”[10] Police and sheriff-involved deaths, incarceration rates that exhibited institutional racism, county and city law enforcement payouts, and criminal activities conducted by law enforcement figures, however, told a different story.

In 2013, former Bakersfield police detective Christopher Bowersox began a ten-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to possessing images of child victims of sexual abuse.[11] In May of 2017, Kern County Sheriff’s deputies Logan August and Derrick Penney pled guilty to conspiring to steal and distribute marijuana. August had participated in numerous drug busts with the narcotics division. After stealing, trimming, and bagging confiscated marijuana, he distributed over twenty-five pounds of the drug at a street price of $15,000. In a video issued to Kern County residents, August claimed “I am sorry” and that “I made a decision based on Satan playing games with me.”[12] August and Penny pled guilty to federal drugs charges, and received three years of probation and 250 hours of community service.


August and Penney worked with former Bakersfield police detective Patrick Mara and others to steal marijuana from Kern County Sheriff’s office storage facilities between June and October of 2014. Mara began his five-year prison sentence in October 2014 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines. His former partner Damacio Diaz started a five-year prison sentence two years later on charges that he accepted bribes from a drug trafficker, sold methamphetamine he confiscated and stole from the department, and filed fraudulent tax returns.

In August 2016, Officer Rick Wimbish and his partner responded to a break-in at a Subway restaurant. Upon their arrival they fired on the perpetrator, twenty-nine-year-old Jason Alderman, as he crawled out of the glass front door he had smashed in. Alderman died at the scene after being struck by seven bullets. After an unsuccessful attempt by the Bakersfield Police Department to confiscate the video camera footage and hide it from the public, it was released and a wrongful death lawsuit was filed by Alderman’s family.[13] Alderman’s death was the first officer-involved shooting reviewed by the District Attorney’s office, which prompted State Attorney General Kamala Harris to launch an investigation on law enforcement officials in the county later that year. The most significant difference between Alderman and a majority of the other victims of police-involved deaths is that he was white.

Officer Wimbish, one of the figures who fired on Alderman, was the son of a former Kern County Sheriff and a twenty-five-year veteran of the Bakersfield Police Department. Prior to his encounter with Alderman, he was involved in four fatal shootings in a two-year period, firing with other officers in one instance on an unarmed confidential informant and member of his own department, Jorge Ramirez, during a planned operation. None of these shootings, however, prevented Wimbish from earning a salary and benefits package that totaled $200,000 annually as he continued to work as a police officer, while also instructing other officers and teaching local schoolchildren about the important role performed by law enforcement officials in the community.

In December 2016, Bakersfield police officers fired seven shots at Francisco Serna, an unarmed seventy-three-year-old man with dementia who was taking a walk one evening. They killed him right across the street from his home in southwest Bakersfield. Like the two residents who called 9-1-1 to reports Serna’s supposedly bizarre behavior, police officers mistook a dark colored plastic crucifix he was carrying for a revolver. Following his death, Serna’s family cited that he often took evening walks around the neighborhood to help himself go to sleep.[14] In July 2017, Police Chief Lyle Martin called Serna’s death “unfortunate” and “tragic,” while also stating that the police officer who fired the shots was working within the department’s, as well as state and federal, guidelines. At least six officers approached Serna after he was identified by the neighbors who called 9-1-1 on him, but only one responded to his actions with gunshots.

In addition to the rash of police-involved deaths faced by the Latinx community, incarceration statistics also highlight a broader racist criminal justice system in Kern County. In 2004, Kern County had the highest third strike incarceration rate in the state with 59 per 100,000 residents. Passed by California voters in 1994, Proposition 184 mandated that three nonviolent felony convictions brought a sentence of twenty-five years to life. It was the strictest “three-strike” policy in the country and contributed greatly to the over-population of California prisons, as well as the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Latinx residents. According to a 2004 Justice Policy Institute study, Kern County’s Latinx third strike incarceration rate, at 53.7 per 100,000, was the highest in the state and nearly three times the rate of Los Angeles County.[15] Overall, Latinx incarceration rates in Kern County are nearly double the state rate.

In addition to the systemic racism in the criminal justice system, in July 2017 several civil rights groups including the Dolores Huerta Foundation, reached a settlement with the Kern County High School District regarding a lawsuit which alleged that Black and Latinx students were unfairly targeted for suspension and expulsion. In 2009, the district reported 2,205 expulsions, the highest number in California. This is in a school district where the Latinx population comprised sixty-four percent of the student population.[16] These findings and the lawsuit against the school district illustrate the way in which Black and Latinx students are tracked from the schools to the prisons at a much higher rate than the white community. Between the 1990s and the 2010s, funding for prisons and jails in California rose three times faster than spending on schools, and allotment for higher education in the state remained relatively flat.[17]

Some white county and city residents, like so many other places hard hit by economic changes in the last few decades, expressed belief that a Trump presidency would revive the local economy. At the start of 2016, the unemployment rate in Kern County was over eleven percent more than double that of California as a whole. Likewise, at approximately forty-nine thousand, the median income in the county was nearly twenty thousand dollars less than the state average and one in five families in Bakersfield lived below the poverty line during the 2016 presidential race. Roadways and front yards across the county were lined with Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” signs.


In October 2016, Joe Arpaio, the former Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, headlined one of the largest pro-Trump rallies held in the county. During his speech, Arpaio joked that President Obama didn’t like him because of his incredibly vocal support of the Birther Movement. The sheriff was widely known to encourage racial profiling by law enforcement figures under him during his time in office in Arizona.

At the very moment he addressed the crowd in Bakersfield, Arpaio faced federal charges that he defied a judge’s order to stop targeting Latinx peoples in traffic stops and other activities conducted by the Maricopa County Sherriff’s Department. In addition to the federal lawsuit, Arpaio also refused to allow the Sheriff’s Department to recognize President Obama’s decision to grant temporary immunity to undocumented peoples who came to the U.S. as children. “They hate me, the Hispanic community, because they’re afraid they’re going to be arrested,” Arpaio boasted in a 2009 television interview, “and they’re all leaving town, so I think we’re doing something good.” [18] “As Arizona has become center stage for the debate over illegal immigration and the civil rights of Latinos,” explained Joe Hagan in an August 2012 edition of Rolling Stone, “Arpaio has sold himself as the symbol of nativist defiance, a modern-day Bull Connor bucking the federal government over immigration policy.”[19] The crowd at the Bakersfield Trump rally numbered in the thousands and was almost exclusively white. President Trump pardoned Arpaio in October of 2017 and in March of 2018, he announced he was running for Senate and vowed to revive the Birther Movement.

Despite the profound level of social divisions in the county and Trump’s highly divisive rhetoric, one Kern County native cited that he would help end social divisions. The same individual argued without providing any examples or context—and without being provoked—that “I cannot stand being called a racist, a bigot. I have nothing against anyone. Don’t tell me what I feel or what I think. I am so sick of that narrative being shoved down my throat.”[20] While many public intellectuals, writers, politicians, and voters pushed the narrative that they voted for Trump because of “economic anxiety,” the talk of ending social divisions did not include people of color in Bakersfield and the rest of the country, just as the slogan “Make American Great Again” struck a particular chord in white identity politics with its implicit embrace of the “good old days” when white male supremacy was even more entrenched in American society than it was in 2016.

Donald Trump’s racist claims that Mexican immigrants were drug dealers, criminals, and rapists during speeches, illustrate that his campaign, as well as the support he received, was based on much more than just “economic anxiety.” Kern County residents expressed sentiments which illuminated the point that their support of Trump went far beyond economic concerns to embrace racist worldviews. Residents in Oildale, a predominantly white and Republican unincorporated suburban community a few miles north of downtown Bakersfield, overwhelmingly supported Trump during his run for office. The community is over 75% white and has a long tradition of racism.

In the 1960s, when African Americans represented a larger portion of the non-white population in the Bakersfield area, white residents hung a sign on the bridge that crosses the Kern River between Bakersfield and Oildale. The sign stated the following: “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in Oildale.”[21] In the mid-1970s, over a dozen black students enrolled at Taft Junior College were escorted out of the southwestern Kern County community by law enforcement officials after they were attacked by a white mob shouting, “Kill the Niggers!”[22] The incident eventually prompted the State Attorney General at the time to launch an investigation regarding the violation of civil rights. This was long before Kamala Harris pushed for the investigation of excessive force and misconduct among law enforcement officials in the county. In Boron, a town east of Bakersfield, three Ku Klux Klan members were arrested in 1981 for burning a cross in the front yard of a black family’s residence and in the 1990s several black motorists were attacked on the streets of Oildale by white residents.[23]

In one instance, the car windshield of a black motorist was smashed by a white woman shouting racist insults. In another, two white residents were charged with federal civil rights convictions for stabbing a black man. Black cab drivers in greater Bakersfield also avoided Oildale in the 1990s, as one reportedly entered a bar to notify a customer of his arrival only to be told, “We don’t like niggers in here.”[24] A watermelon was placed in the front yard of one black family who moved into Oildale and racist literature regularly appeared on doorsteps and in mailboxes throughout the 1990s.[25]

Members of the Chamber of Commerce actively tried to improve the image of Bakersfield in the early 1990s, and many were in denial that places like Oildale were seething with racist hatred. “There’s no more bias here than anywhere else” explained David Brandon of the Chamber of Commerce.[26] “The community is more diverse and more accepting today,” cited North High School principle Bill Bimat, who also explained that “thirty years ago a black couldn’t buy a house, couldn’t work here, and literally would’ve been run out of town.”[27] These civic and business leaders expressed a different reality than the former leader of the Bakersfield chapter of the NAACP in the early 1990s who explained that “if you’re black, you’re always looking over your shoulder,” and also that while there were some good people in Bakersfield, “there are also others who are looking for some hate. For years, it’s been blacks.”[28] While racism against African Americans was prominent in the city in the 1990s despite the level of denial expressed by some white community leaders, from the 1990s onward; the growing Latinx population became the new target.

While racism against African Americans was prominent in the city in the 1990s despite the level of denial expressed by some white community leaders, from the 1990s onward; the growing Latinx population became the new target.

The racist billboards in the 1960s, a cross burning in 1981, and the white supremacist violence of the 1990s, is only the tip of the iceberg. Racism was imported to the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s by whites who migrated to California from the lower Midwest and American South. Klan violence was common on the streets of Bakersfield in the 1920s. Similar to the American South in the early twentieth century, a plethora of local businessmen and politicians counted themselves as members of the racist terrorist organization. The mayor’s office, police departments across Kern County and the County Sheriff’s Office, local judgeships, school districts, and the county board of supervisors were controlled by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Prominent business owners also counted themselves as members of the organization.[29] The power of the Klan in early twentieth century Kern County coincided with a fairly rigid system of public Jim Crow segregation. For example, African Americans could only reside in eastern and southeastern parts of Bakersfield—neighborhoods now home to mostly Latinx peoples—and their children were forced to attend “colored schools.” Working and middle-class white suburban areas, especially those located near the oilfields, were off-limits to people of color, as were oil industry jobs. From the early twentieth century onward, oil companies tended to only hire white employees who lived in segregated all-white communities. Although the industry has gone through cycles of boom and bust, historically speaking these were the best jobs that many white working and middle residents could hope for.

While of course not every Trump supporter during the 2016 election race exhibited xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist tendencies, Oildale was one of those places where Confederate flags flew, and where white nationalist and neo Nazi gangs roamed the streets. White working and middle class residents spoke openly about their racist beliefs.

The population in Bakersfield changed a great deal between the 1960s and the early twenty-first century. Between 1970 and 2010, the Latinx population increased from ten percent to forty-five percent, at the same time as African Americans decreased from thirteen percent to eight percent. Just like the openness in regards to racist beliefs of white residents in earlier decades, some were open about their disliking of the Latinx population while Donald Trump ran for president in 2016. “I don’t like Mexicans. I don’t like them,” cited fifty-eight-year-old Oildale resident Betty Robinson in an April 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times.[30] “To me, if you can’t speak English, why be here? Go back to where you come from,” continued Robison.[31] Robinson’s ignorant comments related directly to, and mirrored in some ways, Trump’s racist comments about Mexican-Americans and spoke to notions of white supremacy in Oildale.

Over the course of just a few weeks in the spring and summer of 2009, three racially motivated incidents occurred in Hart Park, a large public park a few miles east of Oildale. In May of that year, members of the white supremacist group known as the Oildale Peckerwoods pleaded no contest to the charge of violation of civil rights and assault after they attacked a group of Mexican-Americans in the park while yelling racial epithets and white supremacist slogans. The incident resulted in two state prison sentences for assault and violation of civil rights and a misdemeanor assault charge, leaving four people injured. One required fifty stitches. A similar incident took place a few weeks later, leading to two arrests of white supremacists. “Apparently, they’ve picked that park as part of their territory,” claimed Kern County prosecuting attorney Michael Vendrasco, who continued, saying, “they’re not shy about yelling that stuff.”[32] In addition to the three attacks in the summer of 2009, five other race-related hate crimes against Mexican Americans took place in Hart Park between January and June of 2009. It is reasonable to believe that many more went unreported to law enforcement officials.

The content shared on public Facebook profiles of people who identify as Oildale Peckerwoods blatantly illustrate Vendrasco’s statement that members are not shy about sharing their racist beliefs. Specific references to Facebook content, however, were not included in this essay to respect the privacy of peoples concerned, and to prevent any ethical concerns and issues related to authenticity of sources. However, there are concrete examples of white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate in the region’s culture. One example is the acoustic pre-teen folk-pop duo known as Prussian Blue, popular in the early 2000s.

Lamb and Lynx Gaede, the twin sisters that made up Prussian Blue, were homeschooled by a mother who claimed that she was a white nationalist, and that it was her goal to share that part of her life with her daughters. Born and raised in Bakersfield, the duo took the white supremacist and neo-Nazi world by storm in the early 2000s by releasing four albums. Prussian Blue’s lyrical content praised white victory in a racial warfare, white victimhood in a new era of multicultural diversity, and the threat of black violence against white people. In their 2004 song “Aryan Man Awake,” they wax nostalgically about loss of land and wealth among whites that evokes images of the Reconstruction period in American history and the mythical threat of armed black violence ever-present in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. “Aryan man Awake,” sing the duo, “How much more will you take, Turn your fear to hate, Aryan man awake.”


In an early 2000s interview on ABC’s Dateline, Lamb and Lynx Gaede explained, “we must secure the existence of our people and our future for white children.” The two girls also referred to nonwhite people as “muds” and Adolf Hitler as an individual who possessed “a lot of great ideas.” The girls also shared with the ABC journalist Cynthia McFadden some of ways in which they had fun. Included in this list was a computer game entitled “Ethnic Cleansing,” a first-person shooter game where the player gets to travel around an urban environment posing as either a neo-Nazi, skinhead, or Klansman. They are then tasked with killing African, Latinx, and Jewish Americans who roam the streets making gorilla-like sounds. The game was created in 2002 by the white supremacist organization known as the National Alliance, which also signed Prussian Blue to its recording company, Resistance Records. The young twins also expressed that they enjoyed a game referred to as “dancing around the swastika,” which they demonstrated on their kitchen floor with a swastika composed of black electrical tape.

David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who ran on the Republican ticket for president in 1992 and served as a representative in the state of Louisiana in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was one of Prussian Blue’s more prominent and vocal fans. After the group opened for him at one event, Duke said they were “examples of what we really want for our kids.” The musical duo also appeared at events with Tom Metzger, the leader of the Southern California based neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization known as White Aryan Resistance (WAR). In an early 2000s BBC documentary on neo Nazism and white supremacy in the U.S., Lamb and Lynx’s mother April said that “they’ve got to start some time,” when she was asked about why she got her children into racial politics at such a young age. The girls were eleven years old at the time of the filming. April also explained, “I think that Lamb and Lynx’s music and their appeal, especially as they just get a little bit older, they’re going to be an example, and they are going to show… how being, proud of your race is something that would be very appealing to young teenage girls. You know, I mean, what young man, red-blooded American boy, isn’t going to find two blonde twins, sixteen years old, singing about white pride, and pride in your race… very appealing.”

April’s father, Bill Gaede, also appeared in the episode of Dateline. When Prussian Blue was formed and began to perform live and release records, he owned a ramshackle ranch off State Route 180 on Elmwood Road east of Fresno. He had a reputation as someone to avoid, despite the fact that his home was about ten feet from the windy road around which he continually fed and ran pigs and cattle with no regard for the fecal matter they left behind, nor the traffic they backed up. The cattle brand for his ranch, which was adhered to the side of his full-size white Chevrolet truck, included a swastika, as did his favorite belt buckle that he wore around town regularly. Gaede was rumored to park his truck near communities of color just to intimidate residents. In 2002, after a tree burl became popular in the Latinx community because if its resemblance to the Virgin Mary, Gaede chopped the tree down and allegedly shouted “You Catholics! There’s your virgin!”[33] In 2012, he started selling his Swastika Brand Honey. He raised the pop duo’s mother in the same fashion as she raised her children, a clear case of the multigenerational nurturing of white racist hatred in California’s Central Valley.

The threat of white supremacist and neo-Nazi-inspired hatred and violence, however, goes beyond intergenerational nurturing, racist attacks at Hart Park, and Prussian Blue to simple matters of life and death. In April 2017, Justin Cole Whittington, a twenty-five-year-old member of the Oildale Peckerwood gang received a fifteen-year federal prison sentence for firing a sawed-off shotgun at a Latino man in his Oildale front yard. The incident occurred on 19 December 2012. Before firing one round at the victim and driving away, Whittington exited a vehicle near the man’s property and shouted the words “fucking nigger” and “get the fuck out of Oildale.” The pellets did not strike the victim, but he heard them pass by his head. He and his family moved out of the area shortly after the incident. Following this, Whittington fired his shotgun from his vehicle at a convenience store owned by a person of Middle Eastern descent. The perpetrator had a “P” and “W” tattooed on his shin and “23” on his stomach to signify “W” for white power.[34] Before the sentencing, Whittington was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse in 2015 after surveillance footage at a local market caught him punching out his toddler and picking him up by the neck.

Kern County’s history of racism and social injustice was around a century old when Donald Trump was elected to office in 2016. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the county was a hotbed of law enforcement-involved deaths and law enforcement corruption. It was a place where Latinx peoples were incarcerated and killed by law enforcement officials more than anywhere else. Not just in California, but in the country. White residents openly expressed their racist distaste for Latinx peoples, which at times turned violent. A new generation of white supremacists and neo-Nazi millennials embraced the uneducated and ignorant view of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Kern County was the southern-most county in California to pledge a majority of votes for Trump and race relations in the region harken back to the Deep South.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shawn Schwaller received his Ph.D. in history from Claremont Graduate University in 2015, and is currently a lecturer in the Department of History at California State University, Chico. His work engages California history, questions around identity politics, race and ethnic relations, and popular culture.

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


Is Boyle Heights “Worth Saving”?

Image 7

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

Alfredo Huante

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

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

Image 8

Photo by Flickr user Chris Pickel.

Community Planning in Los Angeles                                                                      

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

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

Image 5

Photo by Flickr user Paul Narvaez.

“Boyle Heights is Worth Saving”

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

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

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

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

Image 4

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

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

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

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

Image 2

Photo by Flickr user Paul Narvaez.

Defending Boyle Heights

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

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

Image 1.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image 3

Photo by Flickr user TravelingMan.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[13] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy


Joseph A. Palermo

The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert Francis Kennedy allows for a moment to reflect on the meaning of that tragic event. Alongside a four-part Netflix documentary, dozens of articles about RFK have recently appeared, some of which raise new questions about the assassin’s motives and whether or not he had acted alone. One historian has tried to place RFK’s killing squarely inside the contemporary U.S. discourse of the “war on terror”; while other commentators cast doubt on the idea that the person convicted of the crime was truly guilty.

The 1968 Democratic primary in California was among the most important elections held in the United States in the 1960s. With its racial and ethnic diversity and its manufacturing, agriculture, technology, and service industries, the Golden State was seen as a microcosm of the nation. The 174 votes of the California delegation that Kennedy won in the winner-take-all primary put him in a far stronger position going into the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August. Kennedy’s victory brought to the forefront the wing of the Democratic party that called for an end to the Vietnam War, supported the struggle for civil rights (including farm workers), and advocated new programs to alleviate poverty. RFK’s California win was a pivotal moment for his presidential bid both practically and symbolically. More than any other state, it was California that cleared a pathway for Kennedy to win the nomination of his party and possibly the presidency that November.

The 1968 Democratic primary in California was among the most important elections held in the United States in the 1960s.

Having written two books and several articles about the life of Robert F. Kennedy, up until now I have eschewed writing specifically about his murder. But as the fiftieth anniversary drew near I felt compelled to spend some time in the California State Archives in Sacramento combing through Los Angeles County Sheriff’s records relating to the time immediately following the assassination, when the accused suspect was in the deputies’ custody. Until now these deputies’ logs languished in the archives unremarked upon even though they contain illuminating evidence regarding the alleged assassin’s motives and demeanor in June 1968.

My aim in this article is not to draw grandiose conclusions about the motives behind RFK’s killing, but to try to capture the drama of the details of one of the most consequential political assassinations in American history, and to reconsider that dreadful event of 5 June 1968 in light of what I found in the archival documents.


Photo 5 from Bayview Branch Archives: Robert Kennedy in Bayview Hunters Point. Photo possibly taken 10 May 1967 when U.S. Senators Robert Kennedy, George Murphy, and Joseph S. Clark visited San Francisco’s Western Addition and Bayview Hunters Point neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

The Fatal Event in Los Angeles

Packed tightly inside a sweltering ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, several thousand people—as diverse as California itself—were euphoric that their candidate had just won the state’s Democratic presidential primary. When shrieks arose from a far corner of the room, people realized something was terribly wrong. The realization that gunshots were fired wafted through the crowd, followed by the human sounds of panic mixed with disbelief.

Could this really be happening? New York Senator Robert Francis Kennedy, the younger brother of the slain President John F. Kennedy, suffering a similar fate?

An ambulance rushed Robert Kennedy to Central Receiving Hospital (where he received last rites) and then to Good Samaritan Hospital for emergency brain surgery. For three hours doctors endeavored to remove bone and bullet fragments from the base of his brain, after which he lay clinging to life in “extremely critical” condition.

Back at the Ambassador Hotel, police detained a “John Doe” and charged him with four counts of assault with attempt to commit murder. A secret arraignment was scheduled for 8:30 that morning where bail would be set at $250,000.

The John Doe was being treated at the jail hospital for injuries sustained during his apprehension when prosecutors added two more charges of attempted murder.[1] The doctor’s memo stated the suspect’s left index finger had been fractured and he had a sprained ankle, adding: “blood pressure 112 over 70, pulse 80, temperature 98.0, weight 109 lbs.” His height was listed at sixty-two and a quarter inches.[2]

L.A. County Sheriffs knew extraordinary measures were needed to ensure the safety of their charge. Witnesses at the scene had already alluded to the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President Kennedy, who was murdered while in police custody. “We don’t want another Dallas,” someone blurted out when the shooter was being taken out to a police car. The F.B.I. stationed an agent at the Sheriff’s Department to help protect their detainee from those who would do him harm (or from suicide).[3]

Given the intense interest in the shooting of Robert F. Kennedy and what had transpired in Dallas fifty-three months earlier, L.A. County Sheriffs reassured the public they were taking all necessary steps to keep their famous inmate safe.[4] Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess told the press that no prisoner in the history of the country had ever been held under such tight security. “One deputy remains in the cell with the prisoner at all times,” he said, “while another stands outside in the corridor and watches the cell through a small window in the door; and four more deputies are nearby.”[5]

By noontime 5 June, investigators learned the John Doe’s identity from his brother, who believed his gun was used in the shooting. They were holding Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, whose family immigrated to the United States in 1957 “from Jerusalem, Jordan.” A Sheriff’s Department memo stated that his father, Bishara, had returned to Jerusalem in 1959, and his mother, “Marg [sic] Sirhan,” resided in Pasadena and worked at the Westminster Nursery School. “Pasadena police department [sic] records reflect many calls to the home of Sirhans to settle family disturbances.”[6] The arrest report reads:

Sirhan Sirhan 24 Years

Is not a citizen of the United States and to our knowledge has never applied for citizenship.

Graduated from John Muir High School in Pasadena in 1963. Fellow students like him and called him “Volk,” which means wolf in Russian—Name resulted from his participation in a Russian language class at school.

Has been employed as an exercise boy at racetracks and also as a stock clerk in health food store.

His is Christian, not of Moslem [sic] faith, so diet will not present a problem while he is in our custody.[7]

At about two o’clock in the morning on 6 June, Kennedy’s press secretary Frank Mankiewicz read a short statement from Good Samaritan Hospital: “Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968. With the Senator at the time of his death was his wife, Ethel, his sisters, Mrs. Patricia Lawford and Mrs. Stephen Smith, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. John F. Kennedy. He was forty-two years old.”

Death threats and rumors of death threats flooded the L.A. Sheriff’s Department. A woman called saying her brother-in-law was “determined to kill Sirhan and will attempt to do so when he is taken to trial.” Another tip warned that members of the Mexican-American militant group, the Brown Berets, “may attempt to assassinate Sirhan during one of his court appearances.”[8] Sheriffs also heard from postal inspectors who “received an anonymous call from a male identifying himself as an employee at the Terminal Annex to the effect that he had overheard Negro employees in the Annex state that they were going kill Sirhan Sirhan when he was removed from the security of jail.”[9] Another police report noted a call from “an unidentified male” claiming there had “been a bomb planted in the Hall of Justice [in Los Angeles] set to go off at 4:00 p.m. to kill the suspect that shot Senator Kennedy”; “a shakedown of the building is underway.”[10] There was even a rumor that an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union was “going to pass suspect Sirhan a cyanide pill.” [11]


On Tuesday, Robert Kennedy had been celebrating his hard-fought election victory in Los Angeles. By Saturday evening he was beneath the ground in Washington.

For unknown reasons investigators sought information about Robert Kennedy’s friend, movie director John Frankenheimer, whose home Kennedy and some of his family members stayed in while he campaigned in southern California: “A confidential informant reports subject is a movie and television producer of some magnitude. Informant dislikes subject because of his means of picking talent used on his shows and the fact that although married, he openly ‘carries on’ with numerous paramours.”[12]

The Sheriff’s Department also took an unsolicited phone call from a woman who spoke about Mr. Sirhan stalking Kennedy: “On the day preceding the assassination of Senator Kennedy, a young man, whom she recognizes as Sirhan Sirhan, accompanied by a young lady came to the headquarters and represented himself as a member of the Kennedy Headquarters in Pasadena. He was asking information on the Senator’s schedule…. She and another employee can describe his female companion and can identify her.”[13]

About thirty-five hours after his arrest, Sheriff deputies checked out two books from the public library, which Sirhan Sirhan had requested: The Secret Doctrine by H.P. Blavatsky and Talks on ‘At the Feet of the Master’ by C.W. Leadbeater.[14] The next day the Los Angeles Times explained to its puzzled readers that Blatavsky was a Russian-born founder of the theosophical movement who died in 1891, and “Leadbetter’s 522-page book, published in 1923, is a critique of ‘At the Feet of the Master,’ a theosophical work by Jiddu Krishnamurti published in 1895.”[15] The esoteric reading habits of the young alleged assassin (who multiple press accounts called “swarthy”) only fueled public speculation about his motives. The news story led an educator who was familiar with the works from the English Department at Eastern Michigan University to send Sheriff Pitchess a letter imploring him to look into the possibility that “you are dealing with a ritual murder, which the defense might easily use to prove insanity of some sort, religious compulsion, etc.”[16]

At midday on 6 June, Kennedy’s body, inside a casket of African mahogany, left Good Samaritan Hospital in a blue hearse with a cortege of nine limousines and motorcycle police escorts. After the twenty-mile freeway ride to LAX, several hundred onlookers watched as the Kennedy entourage boarded an Air Force 707 jet that President Lyndon B. Johnson provided. Jacqueline Kennedy and Coretta Scott King joined Ethel Kennedy on the plane.

After a four-and-a-half hour flight, the plane touched down at La Guardia Airport in New York at 8:58 p.m. From there a hearse and thirty-four cars slowly made their way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Over the next forty hours, 151,000 people, some of whom waited for up to six hours in ninety-degree heat, made the pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s to spend a few seconds filing past Kennedy’s casket.

The following morning, a grand jury of fourteen women and eight men convened at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles for a daylong hearing. They heard testimony from twenty-two witnesses before indicting Sirhan Sirhan on one charge of first-degree murder and five counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder.[17]

On Saturday, 8 June, there was a nationally televised funeral service with Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and other U.S. officials as well as foreign dignitaries in attendance. At the close of the forty-five-minute ceremony, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the thirty-six-year-old youngest sibling of the Kennedy clan who had lost all three of his older brothers, quoted from RFK’s June 1966 South Africa speech as well as from his remarks when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. He closed his eulogy, voice cracking: “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

After arriving at Penn Station, Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin was rested on a bier inside a black-curtained funeral carriage at the back of a twenty-one-car train bound for Washington, D.C. He would be laid to rest near his brother’s “eternal flame” at Arlington National Cemetery. News accounts estimated that a million people had lined the tracks and crowded into stations along 226 miles of railway to bid Kennedy a final goodbye. At the gravesite in Arlington, after a brief burial service, Ethel Kennedy was given the folded American flag and her husband of eighteen years, with whom she had ten children with an eleventh on the way, was interred. On Tuesday, Robert Kennedy had been celebrating his hard-fought election victory in Los Angeles. By Saturday evening he was beneath the ground in Washington. 

The Deputies’ “Lettergrams”

The short “lettergrams” L.A. County deputies filed on carbon forms at the end of their shifts (roughly the size of a half-sheet of paper) reported any and all communications with inmates. While the nation was coming to terms with the consequences of this demur young man’s monumental act of violence, working-class Sheriff’s deputies served as his gatekeepers to the outside world.

In the aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Sirhan Sirhan disclosed no interest in voicing any grandiose purpose for his crime. Under California law at the time, if convicted, he could be sentenced to death, which was an incentive not to sound like his actions were premeditated. The majority of the “lettergrams” are routine and institutional, but a few hint at the assassin’s state of mind:

[12 June 1968]

Between 8:00/PM and 9:26/PM I was in room 7058 with I/M [inmate] Sirhan. During this time I/M Sirhan conversed with me about religion. The conversation was light and in generalities.

I/M Sirhan appeared to be rested and in good spirits. Deputy Culver interviewed, stated inmate discussed religious symbols “Egyptian Cross,” “Swastika as cross put to evil use,” [handwriting illegible]

Respectfully submitted,

Dep. William R. Culver #3308[18]

Sirhan generally stayed quiet but when he chose to speak it was about far reaching topics. Under the subject heading “Communication with I/M Sirhan, Sirhan B. #718486” another deputy writes:

[13 June 1968]

During my tour of duty, 3:30/PM-1:30/AM, this day I discussed the following subjects and topics with I/M Sirhan: The French Problem & the gravity of the situation. The essential elements of college & subjects now being offered. Los Angeles & like sister cities, the weather, smog problem & the necessities of automobiles. . . .[19]

On several occasions, Sirhan asked deputies about what the news media were saying about him, but he refrained from using his newfound notoriety to impart any formal statement about his political motivations. He didn’t talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Kennedy’s pro-Israel views, or his own burning desire to kill RFK that was widely publicized after police found diaries in his bedroom where he wrote repeatedly: “RFK Must Die! RFK Must Die!” Sirhan’s jailhouse disposition was a far cry from the young man who filled spiral notebooks with passionate calls for Kennedy’s death.

In fact, Sirhan comes across as being rather listless with little interest in articulating any public statement at all, even after killing a world-famous political figure:

[13 June 1968]

While on duty in I/M Sirhan’s room between 3:30/P and 11:30/P, the only communication between I/M Sirhan and myself was when I/M ask [sic] me if there was still a lot of publicity in the newspapers concerning his case. I replied that I didn’t know as I hadn’t read the newspapers lately.[20]

Another “lettergram” states:

[13 June 1968]

I entered room + [sic] I/M Sirhan said “Good morning Mr. Davis I haven’t seen you for a couple of days! Have you been off?” I answered Yes. I/M “None of the other deputies are talking to me. I notice none of you are wearing name tags, whats up [sic]. New orders from Pete?” I answered No I don’t think that’s it.

I/M “What are the papers saying about me?” I answered I don’t know, I don’t have time to read them. I listen to the news on T.V. in the evenings. If you are curious why don’t you by one? I/M “Naw, I don’t really want to know.”

Respectfully submitted,

Dep. Davis #219 Daywatch[21]

Throughout the “lettergram” records, Sirhan behaves as a model inmate; he respectfully refers to each deputy as “Mr.” and sounds genuinely interested in their lives. His demeanor was no different than any other twenty-four-year-old inmate in the L.A. County Jail who had just made a terrible mistake.[22]


The Provocateur

On the day Sirhan was indicted, an anti-Israel provocateur from New York City named John M. Lawrence, who headed a small left-wing group called “Federated Americans against Israeli Racism” (F.A.I.R.) sent him a letter on F.A.I.R. letterhead. For Mr. Lawrence at least, Sirhan’s motives were clear: “Our pro-Arab political organization extends our friendship to you in your time of trouble. We are proud of you personally for that part of the showing you made establishing you have great heart for the suffering Arab peoples in and about Palestine. We, of course, regret that in your political naivety, you foolishly used the method of assassination.”[23] Lawrence pledges his assistance: “We want you to know that in us, in F.A.I.R., you will have loyal friends. We want to be in touch with you to be of all the help we can in your hard days ahead. To us you are a soldier in the cause of justice for the Arab people who in good faith made a bad judgment.”[24] He concludes his first of many letters to Sirhan: “Day by day the militancy of the Palestinian freedom fighters grows.”[25] A subsequent letter included a money order for an unspecified amount.[26]

Four days later, an ally of Lawrence’s from New York, Dr. M.T. Mehdi, who was the “Secretary-General” of the “Action Committee on American-Arab Relations,” also inserted himself into the case by issuing a press release where he, like Lawrence, directly tied the killing of Robert Kennedy to U.S. Middle East policy:

Sirhan Sirhan is a Christian Palestinian refugee whose people have been either killed, or expelled or subjugated by the Zionist Jews. It was morally wrong on the part of Senator Kennedy to submit to the pressure of the Zionist and promise sending fifty jet fighters to Israel so that more Israeli Jews might kill more of Sirhan’s people and occupy more of Sirhan’s home…. Senator Kennedy is in a very real sense an indirect victim of Zionism.[27]

Mehdi would go on to write a tendentious one hundred-page essay on the subject that was published later in 1968 titled, Kennedy and Sirhan: Why?

Enclosed with Lawrence’s 7 June letter were three copies of F.A.I.R.’s amateurish newsletter, “Insight.” “Restore Palestine to the Arab People” and “For a Unified and Progressive Arab Nation” are the slogans on “Insight’s” masthead. In the February 1968 edition Sirhan possessed, F.A.I.R. vows never to “abandon its basic principle of calling for the abolition or nullification of the Jewish State and government of Israel.” An article therein recounts the “Deir Yassin massacre” of 9 April 1948 where it claims “254 Arabs—men, women, children and even babies—were slaughtered in cold blood, and their bodies dumped into a well…. Remember Deir Yassin! Remember that Jewishism is Nazi barbarism!”[28]

So impressed with F.A.I.R.’s vote of confidence and the content of “Insight,” Sirhan asked deputies about how he might reply:

… At 12:16/PM Sr. Dep. Montague entered room to remove subj. [sic] plate (noon meal) upon subj. request. Sr. Montague asked subj. if he was finished eating and subj. replied “Yes! Thank you!”

At 12:35/PM subj. asked me “How much does it cost to send a telegram to New York?” I replied that I did not know. Subj. was reading the newsletter (Insight) when he asked about sending (the cost) a telegram [sic].[29]

This “lettergram” of 13 June is the first glimpse within the Sheriffs’ logs that Sirhan had any feelings about what the reaction to his deed might be in the Arab world. At 2:30 that afternoon, he wired a Western Union telegram to F.A.I.R.’s office at 57 West 10th Street, New York:

Respected Sirs: Grateful for $ [sic] enjoyed “Insight” Please send more issues. Anxious about Mideast reaction. Sirhan 718486[30]

Obscured by fifty years of reporting and commentary on the RFK killing, Sirhan chose to transmit his first communication to the outside world to a fringe anti-Israel group in New York City. And he didn’t want the public to know about it:

[13 June 1968]

On this date at approx [sic] 12:40/P I/M Sirhan asked “Can the contents of this telegram be kept from the press?” I assured him that I felt this could be done. In I/M Sirhan’s presence, I stated to Sr. Dep. Montague, “He wishes that the contents of this telegram be kept from the press.” Sr. Dep. replied, “Sure.” When the door was closed again, I/M Sirhan said to me, “You’re a good man, Mr. Greene.” I smiled and said nothing.[31]

Apparently wanting to learn more about Lawrence and F.A.I.R., the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department obtained newspaper clippings from New York. One covered an action Lawrence had held a few weeks earlier at New York University where he set up a table in front of Loeb Student Center to distribute anti-Israel materials that provoked a violent reaction from students. “Lawrence, a regular fixture of the Village,” the Washington Square Journal reported, “set the table up at 11:30 a.m. During his 10-hour stay, he moved almost directly in front of Loeb after some students burned a few of his pamphlets, took some pro-Arab buttons, and tore pamphlets and signs that called for Arab revenge on Israel.”[32] The local newspaper estimated that at its peak, a crowd of one hundred people surrounded the forty-six-year-old and he called police, who set up a barricade to separate his table from the angry students. (Lawrence had previously sued NYU after a similar action when he was forced to remove his table.)[33] The whole event seems to have been aimed at little more than baiting NYU students.

Sirhan had every opportunity to share his political views with the public, but he preferred to keep his mouth shut and his contacts with F.A.I.R. hidden. On 14 June, Jack V. Fox, an editor for United Press International, sent Sirhan a list of seven questions with spaces for him to furnish written replies. Given U.P.I.’s worldwide distribution, this was Sirhan’s chance to display his solidarity with people back home in Jordan and Jerusalem. But U.P.I. got nothing from him.[34] The inspiration he gleaned from the “Insight” newsletters filled with anti-Israel invective prompted him to send a telegram, suggest Sirhan’s politics were more sophisticated than he let on.


Sirhan Opens Up

Some of Sirhan’s dialogues with deputies were ponderous, proving the twenty-four-year-old community college student liked to talk about big ideas and contemporary events. One deputy’s log from 14 June describes discussing “the evolution of man and mankind’s beliefs, the current French crisis and the impact on America and how laymen see it, the Southeast Asia escalation and the questions both pro and con presented by Americans.”[35]

One report stands out from the other “lettergrams” and is noteworthy for its length and detail summarizing a colloquy Sirhan had with an African-American officer, Deputy T.I. Greene, where he expressed empathy with the civil rights movement:

Subject: Sirhan Sirhan; Conversation With

At approx [sic] 11:35 A [sic] on 6-14-68, I had occasion to relieve inside Sirahan’s room. After a period of approx 5 minutes silence, he referred to a pile of publications on the floor and asked, “Have you read any of these?” I replied, “No I haven’t.” “I thought that’s why they were out there, so you could read them before giving them to me,” he smiled. I assured him that I had not seen them. He said he wanted me to read something—sorted through the pile, and handed me a publication containing an article of Malcolm X’s visit to the Arab land. The article hailed Malcolm as a great leader and mentioned how he experienced no discrimination, how the Arab was for the Blackman [sic], and that they supported each other (words to that effect). After reading the article I set it down and said nothing. He asked me, “What do you think of the present Black movement?” I told him, “I’m for it.” He said, “Good.” and seemed pleased to hear that.

Next he asked, “What do you feel about Malcolm X?” I said I thought he was a great leader. “You damn right he was,” replied Sirhan and seemed even more pleased than before. With this he pulled another publication from the pile and turned it to another article for me to read. This one was about the Blacks in New York wearing the African costumes, etc. and mentioned identification. I read it and sat it down on the bunk. He wanted to discuss the articles but I just smiled. He smiled also and said, “I understand.” However within a very short moment he asked, “What do you think about Stokely Carmichael?” I told him that I knew Stokely. (I really don’t) He lit up like a X-mas tree and asked several time, “Personally,… personally?” [sic] To this I smiled and lowered my head.

The next question he asked me was, “Have you ever read or do you know an author named Fromm?” and tried to recall his first name. I asked him if he meant Eric Fromm? He said, “yes, yes, that’s the one!!” [sic] He asked me about some other writer who’s [sic] name I can’t recall.

During the time the dialogue was broken by the lunch that was brought into the room. Regarding the demeanor of the servers he asked, “Why do you think they are being so nice to me?” I shrugged it off as “Just following instructions.” He looked at me again with that funny smile.[36]

The provenance of the two-and-a-half-page, hand-written text is that of a standalone chronicle necessitating more detail at the request of a supervisor. Three days later, Inspector R.C. Welch disseminated a memorandum to his deputies clarifying how they should interact with their famous inmate:

All conversations conducted with subject Sirhan Sirhan by the Deputies on duty shall be at Sirhan’s initiative. Deputies shall give noncommittal answers to questions and make no attempts to elicit information through the prolongation of a conversation.[37]

Thereafter, there are no subsequent records of Deputy Greene having any interactions with Sirhan. The discussion Sirhan sparked up with the black officer in an almost pedagogical way proves his keen awareness of the ongoing social struggles of 1968.

Clemency for Sirhan

Eager to interject himself into Sirhan’s case, either to try to co-opt it or draw free publicity from it, Lawrence reemerges 21 June, announcing the formation of an “Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan.” He decried newspaper accounts that Sirhan’s lawyer might pursue an insanity plea. In prose that is somehow both breathless and turgid at the same time, he accused the counsel of “inciting xenophobic anti-foreigner statements from hatemongering elements in the United States to seek to cause schisms in the Arab-American community now uniting to support a clemency appeal for Mr. Sirhan, and to create antagonisms between the peoples and governments of the Arab states and of the United States.”[38] Lawrence was likely reacting to reports that Sirhan’s lawyer sought a psychiatric evaluation of his client.[39]

To drum up support for clemency, Lawrence sent out press releases to the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Free Press, and to the left-wing radio station KPFK in Los Angeles protesting the “prejudicial conduct against” Sirhan.[40] F.A.I.R. and the “Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan” defended Sirhan’s constitutional rights and conjoined RFK’s killing to the struggle of the Palestinian people (something Sirhan had not done publicly). M.T. Mehdi was listed as a co-sponsor. Lawrence’s rambling, eleven-page, single-spaced letter to Sirhan extolling the committee includes a thumbnail history of the United States. The tone of the letter is heuristic, as if to arm the young assassin with a defense of his deed grounded in history.[41]

When The Washington Post published a front-page story about Sirhan on 24 June 1968 by the journalist George Lardner, Jr., Lawrence was apoplectic and wasted no time firing off a blistering rebuttal on behalf of the “Organizing Committee.” He mailed a copy to Sirhan:

We condemn [the article] as part of the neo-McCarthyite, gutter-tactic campaign being waged by U.S. press media, long partisans of the Jewish racist cause of immolating the rights of Palestinian Arabs, to defame and degrade Sirhan B. Sirhan for the real purpose of demeaning the cause for justice for the Arab people.[42]

John Lawrence ridiculed any attempt to pursue a “diminished capacity” defense (even though such a legal tactic was probably the only way to save Sirhan’s life), and refers to Sirhan alternately as a “Palestinian freedom fighter,” a “moderate Christian Socialist,” and an “anarchist.”[43] It seems Lawrence would be just as happy if the state of California made a martyr out of Sirhan and he flattered him with bizarre historical comparisons:

Sirhan B. Sirhan is the Arab-American prototype of John Brown. As John Brown murdered three U.S. troops to seize weapons to help set free the slaves, and by his act awakened the American conscience against the brutalities of slavery and government suppression of the “Underground Railroad,” so Sirhan, with equal political naivety has foolishly, if successfully, struck his blow for Palestinian Arab freedom. Sirhan B. Sirhan is the Arab cause prototype of the workingman who assassinated President McKinley in protest against McKinley’s avowed policy to increase the brutality and terror against organizing workingmen….[44]

In The Washington Post article, a copy of which was held in the L.A. Sheriff’s files, Lardner had interviewed some of Sirhan’s neighbors and co-workers at a health food store. He had been employed there for seven months as a $2-an-hour stock clerk and delivery boy. They all seemed to agree that Sirhan had “wonderful manners” and was generous, even once paying the bill for an elderly customer who couldn’t afford his groceries.[45]

But some of them spoke about another side of the young Pasadena resident. “He had this attitude of rebellion against society,” the owner of the store, John Weidner, told Lardner. “Most of all, he was anti-Israel,” Mr. Weidner’s wife, Naomi said. She recalled a conversation where Sirhan vented his bitterness about the June 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors and grew angry when Mrs. Weidner brought up Nazi atrocities against the Jews during World War II: “Don’t you think the Jews can be cruel?” he asked. “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else, not even my parents”; he disclosed that as a young boy he had seen an Israeli soldier mutilate an Arab woman.

From the Christian village of Taibeh, in what the press called “Israeli-Occupied Jordan,” Sirhan’s father, Bishara, disputed his son’s recollection, stating that he had never been near any Israeli soldiers. Yet three days earlier it was reported in another paper that Bishara conceded that his son suffered facial injuries when an Israeli mortar exploded near him and that he witnessed an Arab woman stabbed by an Israeli soldier.[46] From Lardner’s reportage it appears Sirhan might have simply seized an opportunity to act out when RFK began spending a lot of time campaigning near his hometown. He concludes:

But it seems apparent that resentment of Israel and Robert F. Kennedy’s support of military aid for the country is hardly enough to explain the assassination of which he stands indicted. Virtually every Arab and Arab-American waxes bitter about Israel. There is only one Sirhan Bishara Sirhan.[47]

Lawrence also tried to stoke Sirhan’s hatred toward Kennedy. In another letter he wrote about an “encounter” he claimed to have had with RFK in an elevator in the New York building housing M.T. Mehdi’s pro-Arab group:

I was wearing our pro-Arab button on my lapel, which reads: RESTORE PALESTINE TO THE ARAB PEOPLE. [sic] I told Mr. Kennedy I had heard his Brooklyn College statement and that in time he would find out that there are more people in America for the Arab justice cause then [sic] he knew. In typical Kennedy “smart-aleckism” [sic] he beamed: “Thank you for your support. I appreciate your support.” To this I replied that he would never receive my support, nor those any decent people, for we knew a Machiavellian when we saw one.”[48]

The jailhouse records are bereft of evidence that Sirhan disagreed with any of the opinions or content of the materials Lawrence or M.T. Mehdi sent him.



The anti-Israel groups purporting to operate in Sirhan’s behalf—F.A.I.R., the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, and M.T. Mehdi’s Action Committee on American-Arab Relations—all sought to bolster the young man’s view of himself as a “freedom fighter” for Palestine. They harped on RFK’s support for giving Israel U.S. jet fighters (even though other presidential candidates in 1968 held the same position) and never missed an opportunity to frame the assassination as an overtly political act, even while Sirhan stayed mum on the subject.

F.A.I.R.’s original statement establishing the clemency committee contains a strident assertion that U.S. actions in the Middle East had led to the assassination. In doing so, the militants from New York had fit Robert Kennedy’s killing squarely into a “blowback” narrative. “The Jewish war on Palestinian Arabs more and more will inevitably be brought to the streets of America to those who in cynical politics nurture it,” Lawrence proclaimed.[49] Yet it’s safe to conclude after a half-century that the RFK assassination had zero effect on the trajectory of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

What Sirhan had done was eliminate Kennedy’s voice in domestic politics at a crucial moment when he was seeking to lead a bitterly divided Democratic Party. Sirhan’s act might have proved irrelevant to U.S.-Middle East policy, but it altered American political history profoundly. Not only did Kennedy’s assassination create a vacuum of leadership at a critical time, it began a decades-long identity crisis for the Democratic Party.

It was no secret that as the senator from New York, Kennedy had championed the State of Israel. He had been a friend of the Jews in Palestine from the time he first traveled there as young man in 1948 and wrote about his admiration for the Tel Aviv Haganah in a Boston newspaper. “The United States and Great Britain before too long a time might well be looking to a Jewish state to preserve a toehold in that part of the world,” he wrote.[50] But Kennedy also strongly defended the United Nations as one of the few international bodies friendly to Palestinian interests. He was committed to the wider mission of the U.N. going back to his law school days when in 1951 he defied the University of Virginia’s racial segregation policies to invite the African-American diplomat Ralph Bunche to speak.[51] We will never know how RFK’s views might have evolved had he lived regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

We will never know how RFK’s views might have evolved had he lived regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Eleven months after RFK’s death, while California Superior Judge Herbert V. Walker was considering whether to sentence Sirhan to life in prison or the gas chamber, Edward Kennedy felt it was the right time for the Kennedy family to comment. He sent the District Attorney in Los Angeles, Evelle Younger, a hand-written letter:

Dear Mr. Younger,

Since this is now a question of clemency and the trial proceedings have been concluded, I feel I can appropriately convey to you, for whatever consideration you believe to be proper how we feel.

My brother was a man of love and sentiment and compassion. He would not have wanted his death to be a cause for the taking of another life. You may recall his pleas when he learned of the death of Martin Luther King. He said that “what we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion towards one another.”

Moreover, he was a young man totally committed to life and living. He stood against injustice, poverty and discrimination for those evils lessened life. He grew to despise war for war denies the sacredness of life. And he had a special affection for children for they held the promise of life.

We all realize that many other considerations fall within your responsibility and that of the court. But if the kind of man my brother was is pertinent we believe it should be weighed in the balance on the side of compassion, mercy and God’s give of life itself.


Edward M. Kennedy[52]

After weighing the evidence Judge Walker was in no mood to grant Sirhan the kind of mercy Edward Kennedy encouraged. He handed down a death sentence, thereby sparking an automatic appeal. Sirhan was shipped off to languish with the seventy-seven other prisoners then on death row in California’s notorious San Quentin State Prison.

It’s unfortunate the state of California had the death penalty at the time. When prosecutors sought capital punishment, it forced the hand of defense counsels by giving them no choice but to pursue a “diminished capacity” strategy as the only means to save their client’s life. This policy had the effect of essentially silencing the accused and gave an opening for others to fill in the gaps in the narrative with their own interpretations. Senator Edward Kennedy’s call for sparing his brother’s killer might have complicated matters as well, at least symbolically, because his appeal could be seen as outside meddling by a federal official. But Sirhan was a California prisoner, not a federal one; Edward Kennedy’s widely publicized letter had no legal authority. On death row, Sirhan became the most famous prisoner in the California penal system (until the sentencing of Charles Manson two years later).

In June 2013, on the 45th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death, the Canadian historian Gil Troy published an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post arguing that to “honor” RFK’s legacy, we should view his murder as an early act of Arab terrorism on U.S. soil.[53] “The Kennedy assassination tale,” Troy writes, “highlights the high cost Palestinian totalitarian terror has exacted from civilized society. It spotlights the ongoing dangers of ideological anti-Americanism, which continues to mix with anti-Zionism and serve as an ideological glue in the bizarre Red-Green alliance, linking Progressives with regressive Islamists…. To honor Robert Kennedy’s memory most fully, we must see the Middle East conflict more clearly.”

Troy’s argument, which is a mirror image of the “blowback” thesis, contradicts RFK’s legacy as Edward Kennedy presented it in his eulogy and in his 1969 letter to the judge seeking to spare the life of his brother’s killer. Linking Kennedy’s killing to “terrorism” as defined today only legitimizes those who in 1968 gave backhanded justifications for the crime. Both arguments find common ground in yoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy to U.S.-Israel relations.

Fifty years later, it seems inappropriate to wage a “war on terror” in Robert Kennedy’s name, even though the Sheriff’s logs clearly reveal Sirhan was more stridently committed to the Palestinian cause than he let on. The half-century that has passed since that terrible night at the Ambassador Hotel has proven Kennedy’s murder didn’t alter the course of U.S.-Middle East relations one iota. And for all we know Robert Kennedy, had he lived, could’ve become a powerful advocate for a peaceful and just conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.



[1] Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sirhan Sirhan Case File 1968-1969 (hereafter SSCF68-69), Operational Log, Wednesday, 5 June 1968, 10:15 a.m.

[2] Memo from Marcus Crahan, M.D., Medical Director, to Peter J. Pitchesss, Sheriff, 5 June 1968, “John Doe—Booking No. 718-486,” SSCF68-69.

[3] Memo from Inspector R. C. Welch (Jail Division) to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[4] Press Release, “Pitchess Explains Security Measure on Sirhan Sirhan,” 6 June 1968. On some early correspondence sheriffs referred to the suspect as “Serhan Serhan,” noting they were spelling it phonetically, SSCF68-69.

[5] Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1968, p. 18.

[6] Undated summary memo held in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sirhan Sirhan Case File, 1968-1969, SSCF68-69.

[7] Second undated summary memo, SSCF68-69.

[8] Intelligence Report (Confidential – Restricted), to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[9] Memorandum, Intelligence Bureau to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[10] Operational Log, Thursday, 6 June 1968, 1:20 p.m. SSCF68-69,

[11] Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-22, General Subject Files-Memoranda, 7-14 June 1968, (hereafter GSFM3-22).

 11 Intelligence Report (Confidential -Restricted), To: File; Activity: Follow Up; Area: Malibu; Subject: Frankenheimer, John Michael, 6 June 1968 (his wife, Ethel, and six of their ten children accompanied Kennedy in California), SSCF68-69.

[13] Memo from Robert F. Trask, Captain Commander, Temple Station, to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 7 June 1968, Subject: “Information on the Female Companion of Senator Kennedy’s Assassin,” GSFM3-22.

[14] Memorandum, H.M. Mear, Lieutenant to G. H. Carlson, Inspector, 6 June 1968 (a third book requested could not be found: Divine Cult of Healing by Manley P. Hall), SSCF68-69.

[15] Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1968, p. 18.

[16] Letter from Roger Staples to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 8 June 1968 (on Eastern Michigan University-Ypsilanti letterhead), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-28, General Subject Files, June-November 1968 (hereafter GSF3-28).

[17] Francine Klagsbrun and David C. Whitney, eds., Assassination: Robert F. Kennedy-1925-1968, by the editors of United Press International (New York: Cowles, 1968), 163. The others who were wounded were: Paul Schrade, a United Auto Workers official; William Weisel of the American Broadcasting Company; Ira Goldstein, a Continental News Service reporter; Elizabeth Evans of Saugus, California; and Irwin Stroll of Los Angeles.

[18] Los Angeles County Lettergram, Deputy W.R. Culver to Inspector Welch, 12 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 1-32, Personal Deputies’ Statements, 12-14 June 1968 (hereafter PDS1-32).

[19] Lettergram, Deputy I.B. Mills #3257 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[20] Lettergram, Deputy Ellison #2350 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[21] Lettergram, Deputy Davis #219 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[22] Lettergram, Deputy D. Bridges #1540 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[23] Letter from John M. Lawrence of “Federated Americans Against Israeli Racism” (F.A.I.R.) 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 7 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-26, General Subject Files-Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, June 1968 (hereafter GSF3-26); Sirhan received the letter on 10 June 1968.

[24]Letter from John M. Lawrence of Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., to Sirhan Sirhan, 7 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[25]Letter from John M. Lawrence of Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., to Sirhan Sirhan, 7 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[26] Letter from John M. Lawrence and Abdeen Jabara (attorney) to Sirhan, 14 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[27] Press Release from The Action Committee on American-Arab Relations, Secretary-General Dr. M. T. Mehdi, 441 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York, 11 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Files-General Subject Files, 3-28; (LASDF-GSF3-28), June-November 1968.

[28] Copies of “Insight,” published by Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., 1 April 1968, (Vol. 1, No. 3), New York, N.Y., Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-28, General Subject Files, June-November 1968, GSF3-28. A copy of Sirhan’s telegram is attached to the copies of “Insight” in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department records. September 1967 (Vol. 1, No. 1), February 1968 (Vol. 1, No. 2), and April 1968 (Vol. 1, No. 3).

[29] Lettergram, Deputy G.D. Erickson #2332 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[30] Copy of Western Union Telegram, Sirhan B. Sirhan to F.A.I.R., 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY, 2:30 P.M., 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[31] Lettergram, Deputy T.I. Greene to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[32] Washington Square Journal, Thursday, 16 May 1968, p. 3, GSF3-26.

[33] Washington Square Journal, Thursday, 16 May 1968, p. 3, GSF3-26.

[34] Letter from John V. Fox of United Press International to Sirhan Sirhan, 14 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, General Subject Files, File 3-28, June-November 1968, GSF3-28.

[35] Lettergram, Deputy I.B. Mills to Inspector Welch, 14 June 1968, Subject: “Communicating with I/M Sirhan, Sirhan B. #718486,” PDS1-32.

[36] Letter from Deputy T.I. Greene to Inspector R. Welch, 14 June 1968, Subject: “Sirhan Sirhan, Conversation With,” PDS1-32.

[37] Memorandum, Inspector R.C. Welch to Concerned Personnel, 17 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[38] Press Release, Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY, John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26. The Committee was comprised of Abdeen Jabara, the attorney for the group from Michigan; Frank Sakran of Maryland; Larissa Nassif of Connecticut; and George Mahshie, Omar Ghobashy, Sayed Farooq, George Aboud, and Majid Tayer, all of New York.

[39] “‘Brain Damage’ Sirhan’s Defense? Top L.A. Lawyer Parsons Takes Case,” Herald Examiner, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26, Russell E. Parsons was Sirhan’s lawyer at the time.

[40] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 21 June 1968, General Subject Files-Memoranda, File 3-26, June 1968, GSF3-26. The letter has nine co-signers representing the committee: Abdeen Jabara of Michigan, Attorney for the group; Frank Sakran of Maryland, Larissa Nassif of Connecticut; and George Mahshie, Omar Ghobashy, Sayed Farooq, George Aboud, and Majid Tayer of New York.

[41] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 21 June 1968, General Subject Files-Memoranda, File 3-26, June 1968, GSF3-26.

[42] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, General Subject Files, June-October 1968, File 3-27, GSF3-27.

[43] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, GSF3-27.

[44] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, GSF3-27.

[45] The Washington Post, “Neighbors Recall Sirhan as Shy, Polite,” 24 June 1968, p. A1, GSF3-26.

[46] “‘Brain Damage’ Sirhan’s Defense? Top L.A. Lawyer Parsons Takes Case,” Herald Examiner, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26. The Lardner article also quotes Sirhan’s employer, Mr. Weidner, divulging that Sirhan had told him his father had been a strict disciplinarian who once applied a hot iron to his feet.

[47] The Washington Post, “Neighbors Recall Sirhan as Shy, Polite,” 24 June 1968, p. A8, GSF3-26. Lardner’s piece also recounted Sirhan’s mother’s story that she believed her son had “never been the same” after falling from a horse on 25 September 1966 while “breezing a filly” when he worked at a racetrack in Corona, California. Sirhan had received a $2,000 settlement in his injury case. It was presumed that the $400 on his person at the time of his address was part of this settlement, which he requested from jail that it go to his mother.

[48] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 23 June 1968, General Subject Files-File 3-27, June-October 1968, GSF3-27.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Joseph A. Palermo, Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (New York: Pearson, 2008), 20.

[51] Ibid. 21.

[52] Undated Handwritten letter from Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy to California District Attorney Evelle J. Younger (ca. 18 May 1969), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-17, General Subject Files, 24 April to 14 October 1969, GSF1969, 3-17. In 1972, when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

[53] Gil Troy, “Understanding RFK’s Assassination as Palestinian Terror,” The Jerusalem Post, 5 June 2013.

Joseph A. Palermo
is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. He has written In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001), Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008), and contributed the essay, “Robert F. Kennedy,” to A Companion to John F. Kennedy, edited by Marc Selverstone (Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

Copyright: © 2018 Joseph A. Palermo. 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/.


Queering Desire from California

Việt Lê

During and after my father’s two-year terminal illness, and my own simultaneous cancer scare (2000-2003), I became concerned with individual illness as a metaphor for the failure of ideology and the political body, and called this series, “Still.” At the time, I was also dealing thematically with loss and the long shadow of HIV/AIDS in a continuing body of work entitled, “Pictures of You.” I was thinking of Susan Sontag,[1] Douglas Crimp, Joan Didion,[2] and Foucault. Above all else, I was thinking of two things: trauma and desire.

Lê girlhood among ghosts_L

untitled (girlhood among ghosts)

Desire denotes emptiness, a void, an impossibility, an ethical conundrum. Desire unattainably sits on the horizon. What do we desire most in this political moment? What really ails us?

I have been rethinking illness and failure after reading and teaching Anne Cvetkovich’s Depression, Anne Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief, Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, José Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, and Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness,[3] in conversation with other texts, artists, and thinkers.

I now understand “illness” as being culturally constructed—systemic failure. On one hand, with continued systemic oppression (along the lines of class, gender, race) minoritarian subjects would be ailing, not particularly content with the status quo. Critical voices of dissent are “killjoys,” as Sarah Ahmed[4] and Jan Bernabe[5] have observed. Postmodernity and its discontents: to be a killjoy is to be attuned to—and respondent to—a range of violence from micro-aggression to lethal force. Neither of these come with a trigger warning.

10 The Death of Marat

untitled (The Death of Marat)

According to the Washington Post’s real-time National Police Shootings Database,[6] there have been 408 fatal shootings by officers already this year (987 in 2017; daily the list grows). We are cannibalizing ourselves. These killings on our streets can be linked to longer histories of violence and empire, which is obscured under different guises. This mentality to “Make America Great Again” has viably amounted to making America hate again.

On top of all this, the U.S. Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 barred Asians and Arabs and also restricted immigration for Eastern and Southern Europeans. The Obama administration deported more than 2.7 million immigrants—a record for any presidency.[7] October 2017, President Trump proposed restricting the number of immigrants to 45,000,[8] down from 110,000 in 2016. But this isn’t limited to our gold coasts and miracle miles. Brexit and the outcry over the European refugee “crisis” suggest an unnerving political pendulum swing. Political victories and losses do not compare to and nor do they make up for the loss of rights, livelihood, and of life itself.

What do we do as a (social) body with threatening growth? We isolate, excise: through incarceration, corporal punishment, banishment (think about deportation, travel bans, and Muslim bans). Although, we can combat this mindset of threatening isolation through the Enlightenment discourse of rational helpfulness; racial uplift; liberté, egalité, fraternité; and the disguise of love. As Marguerite Duras writes of colonial desires: “love unto death.” Death is the end-logic of disease, of dis-ease, of being ill at ease.

The real illness lies in our fear of others—of terrorists, immigrants, refugees. Vietnamese refugees. Californians are not exempt from this, and have historically exhibited some of the more extreme versions in racist policies that get exported throughout the nation, and tend to fester here, hidden under the blinding sun. But refusing these, wherever they come from, is an option—an opting out of the ideological and real violence of empire, patriarchy, hetero- and homo-normativity. We do not want to be #winning (#whining?), if success means capitulating to capitalism’s misogynist, racist, ageist demands. We don’t have to give in, give up, cede to others, secede from ourselves (or the nation) to succeed. If to “succeed” under heteronormative patriarchy means to follow an ideal weight, age, skin color, (re-)productive timelines, ad nauseam, we would rather choose to fail, to un-follow, be fallow. The embrace of failure, indeed, opens up critical and creative possibilities. Muñoz admits, “Within straight time the queer can only fail; thus an aesthetic of failure can productively be occupied by the artist for delineating straight time’s measure.”[9] Artist Sowon Kwon notes that being perfect and perfectly average—exceptional yet unthreatening (model citizen, model minority)—strands us intersectional feminists in no man’s land.[10]

As our American idols fall (Weinstein, Rose, Spacey, Cosby, et al)—the fathers falter—their embodied pinnacles of success and predation display a pestering symptom. “A festering pustule in a diseased industry,” director/actress Sarah Polley called Weinstein in a New York Times op-ed.[11] Beyond op-eds, there’s no option: up end, opt out.

We want to fail. We want to fail if corporate excess (cum execs, sex) and captains of industry are quietly complicit in perpetuating decades and centuries of trauma.

How do we question, query, and queer our inherited timelines, cultural mythologies, and individual myths? To use Halberstam’s term, this is the queer art of failure. Muñoz observes that utopia is even predicated on failure. It comes to be this impossible horizon. This is the paradox of desire—love, beauty, community. Yet, they are implausible ideals that we as a people continually strive for. This desire to fare better, then, is to fail better.

Illness and its metaphors. We cannot “be illin’” (Netflix-and-chillin’) when our bodies, our political bodies, and our earth is in a state of emergency. In critical condition, we need critical mass, creative intervention—an ethics of refusal—in our despair and desires. And here, in this ascesis, we may eventually find better ways to truly hope.

4 kitchen window

untitled (kitchen window)

5 garage

untitled (garage)

6 yellow

untitled (yellow)

9 temple drum

untitled (temple drum)

11 waking alone

untitled (waking alone)

7 laundry, after Vermeer

 untitled (laundry, after Vermeer)

12 ants

(untitled) ants

13 flowers

untitled (flowers)



  • All photographs taken by Việt Lê, 2001-05, Lambda print face-mounted on Plex, Edition of 5 + 1 AP 36″ L x 36″ W x 1″ D framed (91.4 x 91.4 x 2.5 cm). Used by Permission.

** This short essay is excerpted and expanded from Madalyn K. Le and Việt Lê “CA+T (Center for Art + Thought) Interview with Việt Lê,” 28 December 2017,  http://centerforartandthought.org/cat-interview-vi%E1%BB%87t-l%C3%AA.

[1] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (New York: Picador, 2001).

[2] Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage, 2007).

[3] Anne Cvetkovich, Depression (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), Anne Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), and Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

[4] https://feministkilljoys.com/.

[5] https://news.artnet.com/art-world/queering-contemporary-asian-american-art-986825.

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2017/.

[7] https://www.democracynow.org/2017/2/22/advocate_trumps_deportations_are_possible_because.

[8] Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Miriam Jordan, “Trump Plans 45,000 Limit on Refugees Admitted to U.S.,” New York Times, 27 September 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/us/politics/trump-plans-45000-limit-on-refugees-admitted-to-us.html.

[9] Cruising Utopia, 174.

[10] http://archive.bampfa.berkeley.edu/exhibition/196.

[11] Sarah Polley, “Sarah Polley: The Men You Meet Making Movies,” New York Times, 14 October 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/14/opinion/sunday/harvey-weinstein-sarah-polley.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0.

Việt Lê is a Vietnamese artist, writer, and curator whose work focuses on trauma, modernity and popular cultures in Southeast Asian diasporas. He is Assistant Professor (Visual Studies) at the California College of the Arts. His art and research has been featured at H Gallery Bangkok, the Shanghai Biennial and the Smithsonian. Recent publications include “White Gaze” with Dr. Michelle Dizon and “Myriad Modernities,” a Visual Anthropology special double issue coedited with Dr. Lan Duong. For more of his work, see vietle.net.

Copyright: © 2018 Việt Lê. 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/.



Vietnamese Adoptions

Allison Varzally

As part of targeted evacuation efforts from Southeast Asia in 1975, the U.S. government arranged for military and commercial planes to transport Vietnamese children to the United States. In theory, the airlifts simply facilitated adoption proceedings already in motion. Children selected for the airlifts were already paired with suitable American families who eagerly awaited their arrival. And the efforts were bolstered by collaboration with social welfare and adoption agencies such as Holt International, Welcome House, United Catholic Relief Services, Friends for All Children, and Friends of the Children of Vietnam (FCVN). However, in its rushed execution, the program resulted in confusion and tragedy. One of the first official flights, carrying an estimated three hundred children and adult caregivers, exploded in mid-air; only half of the flight’s passengers survived.

The horrific accident only strengthened the resolve of organizers to get children out of Vietnam. While expressing sorrow for the victims of the crash, President Ford insisted, “our mission of mercy must continue…. This tragedy must not deter us but offer new hope for the living.”[1] In prioritizing the plight of Vietnamese children after years of relative inattention, the U.S. government adopted the rhetoric of responsibility long articulated by left-leaning Americans. Admitting the nation’s culpability in the destruction and dissolution of Vietnamese families, officials sought not simply to atone for American sins and relieve the suffering of Vietnamese children, but to control the peace.

Yet Vietnamese would disrupt these efforts and dispute this message, reappearing as refugees who endeavored to have familial reunion within the United States. Seeking to preserve life amidst unfathomable loss, death, and ruin, Vietnamese mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents strategically chose Operation Babylift as a means of assuring the safety of their young kin, hoping they would be able to reunite with them if they were able to migrate to the United States successfully. Many of the children airlifted from Vietnam appeared to have family members who hoped to reclaim them—they were not all orphans. Vietnamese had seized the evacuation as a necessary, if desperate, step in a larger process of migration that could mitigate their grief and disorientation. Those fortunate enough to reach the United States and initiate their plans of reconciliation, however, were confronted with the contrary ambitions of American families, agencies and government officials who viewed adoption and the assimilation of Vietnamese children as both an apology for the nation’s wrongs and affirmation of its material and moral worth. In arguing for their parental rights and introducing Americans to the forms and obligations of the extended Vietnamese family, these refugees rejected American interpretations of the war in favor of their own. Such interpretations had challenged expected performances of Vietnamese women as either helpless victims or scheming enemies, which came to shape how they settled in the United States, how they sustained ties to Vietnam, and even how this would influence future foreign policy.


California played a leading role in this intense drama that was unfolding across the United States. Not only did Californians, Vietnamese and American, receive and process the largest number of airlifted children, but they also originated and organized the loudest opposition to American adoptions and benevolent representations of its war in Vietnam. In the process, the state provided a foundation for the establishment of Vietnamese communities and reinforced a tradition of protest and trans-pacific relations.

San Francisco’s Presidio, the largest of the reception centers, swiftly mobilized to process children airlifted from Vietnam. Indeed, of the over 2,000 children hastily removed as part of Operation Babylift, more than 1,500 passed through the military installation that was aided by more than 5,400 California volunteers who provided communication, shelter, food, security, and medical assistance. Among those Bay Area residents who answered the call (specifically for those fluent in Vietnamese) were Muoi McConnel, a Vietnamese nurse married to a former U.S. servicemen; Nhu Miller, a Vietnamese-born, European-raised, and American-educated (Barnard and University of California, Berkeley) woman who described herself as a revolutionary in later interviews; and Mai Chaplin, a homemaker of Vietnamese descent. While caring and conversing with children at the Presidio, the trio came to express such surprise that some of the youth did not appear to be orphans in their own right. Such youth had confessed confusion about their whereabouts and a longing for living Vietnamese parents and kin. Muoi asserted that of the twenty-three children whose names she recorded, three reported having two living parents in Vietnam, fourteen asked about their mothers, and two described grandparents residing in the United States.[2] Mai recalled her exchange with two sisters who claimed their parents were alive and well in Qui Nhon. Reportedly, they had placed their daughters—two of their nine children—in a Catholic orphanage whose director agreed to send the girls to the U.S. until they might return to Vietnam.[3]

Dismayed and determined to resolve the seeming problem of the non-orphans, Muoi and Nhu approached U.S. officials who straightaway ignored their appeals for assistance. However, Nhu’s husband, Tom, a Stanford trained lawyer, former staff member of the U.S. State Department, and long advocate for Vietnamese children who had helped establish the Children’s Medical Relief International and the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in Saigon, listened closely to the women’s concerns and chose to act. Drawing support from a network of California based, anti-war attorneys and the Center for Constitutional Rights,[4] Tom helped file an action, Nguyen Da Yen et al. v. Kissinger et al., in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, charging Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Attorney General Edward Levi, and seven adoption agencies with bringing children to the United States who were not orphans properly released for immigration. Plaintiffs demanded “the accumulation of defendant’s records to determine each child’s adoptive status and enable any living parents to be located,” a process predicated upon halting the adoption proceedings of American families whom they conceded may be “concerned and loving” but “no substitute for biological parents.”[5]


While expressing sympathy for adoptive families and eschewing political motives, the plaintiffs emphasized the superiority of Vietnamese families, the harm done to displaced Vietnamese children, and proposed the fundamental flaws of the U.S. Government. In its motion for preliminary injunction, lawyers asserted that they did not intend to challenge the wisdom of admitting children during the last days of war, a clarification that seemed to remove the question of child custody from the context of controversy about the war’s closure. However, over the course of the trial, they struggled to maintain an apolitical stance and refrain from a broader commentary about the perceived injustice of the war and the ignorance of American couples. In its complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, the plaintiffs’ attorneys aired their grievances, accusing the government of orchestrating Operation Babylift “to create a climate of opinion favorable to the continuation of unconstitutional and illegal U.S. involvement in the war in South Vietnam to the end of securing from the United States Congress authorization and appropriation of additional funds to militarily support the war, and to provide a cover for United States military intervention.” In other documents, the plaintiffs found fault with adoptive parents, along with the officials and agencies who facilitated their efforts. “It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate,” insisted lead attorney for the Plaintiffs, Nancy Stearns, in a court memo. To further support this reading, she offered the testimony of Joyce Ladner, a sociologist and civil rights activist who studied transracial adoption. Although Ladner acknowledged, “Asians may not experience as much hostility in the predominantly white American society” as African Americans, she believed that “they do experience subtler forms of discrimination.” Additionally, she anticipated how such Vietnamese adoptees would come to “face additional hostility as a result of feelings of anger in many Americans regarding the Vietnam war” and would suffer “a racial identity crisis comparable to that in black children.” Claiming the virtues of Vietnamese families, she concluded that “even if the circumstances to which they return are less economically secure than the American homes they are presently in, emotional security must not be traded for a middle class life style where racial and cultural gaps are so broad and so often ignored.”[6] She portrayed Americans as a group whose false faith in material advantages blinded them to the problems of transracial families. This exposed a broader, leftist opposition to capitalism that had founded the antiwar movement and informed the plaintiff’s case, but which members of the Center for Constitutional Rights strategically preferred to understate.


 It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate.

In her April 1975 Affidavit, Nhu Miller further elaborated these points. She noted that Americans misunderstood the structure and strength of Vietnamese families, creating an unnecessary and self-serving crisis. Vietnamese practiced an extended system of family so that “if you lost your father, you still have your uncle. If you lose your mother, your aunt will still nurse you.” Rather than asylums, she explained, orphanages were used as places for boarding children during times of economic or political crisis…. Foreign adoption is an alien and repugnant notion to the Vietnamese.” Nhu countered a picture of neglected or absent Vietnamese mothers, chastising “foreigners, who see only orphanages and assume the Vietnamese don’t care for their children, do not hear about mothers struggling alone to care for ten children or women caring for children left in their care permanently who would never consider putting them in an orphanage.”[7] Nhu’s portrait of maternal struggle and adoption disrupted prevailing images of Vietnamese women that had shaped U.S. assertions in South Vietnam. Perpetuating a habit of feminizing Asian nations and casting Asian women as victims or vixens, U.S. media, soldiers, and policy makers alternatively imagined themselves as protecting or punishing a vulnerable, if sometimes treacherous, South Vietnam. Lost within these gendered constructions and justifications of military action were the real Vietnamese women whom Nhu depicted: individuals making tough but deliberate choices amidst arduous circumstances.[8] So confident in her conception of caregiving customs and the will of Vietnamese mothers was Nhu that she and her husband, Tom Miller, long resisted assuming fuller responsibility for Oktober, the son of a Vietnamese woman, A, who had pleaded for their help. Nhu’s mother, BachLan, had first supported the boy, but when she died, Nhu felt compelled to help A “take care of her own child.” Nhu removed Oktober from an orphanage where he spent some of his days after determining its operators “were essentially selling the children.” And when she finally accepted A’s pleas “to take care of him” on a permanent basis and bring him to the United States, Nhu made certain that Oktober sustained a relationship with his Vietnamese mother.[9]

The cases of Vietnamese families who endured separations and sought reunions in the United States seemed to underscore Nhu’s picture of caring Vietnamese kin and Americans’ propensity to sin. Li The Hang, whose work as an interpreter in a U.S. hospital in Vietnam familiarized her with American personnel and regulations, placed two of her five children, Phuong and Holly, with Catholic Charities and begged the organization “to get them out” before conditions deteriorated further in 1975. As she said her farewells, Li The Hang pressed into their hands a photo inscribed with a message intended to reassure and inspire: “My wish is for you to grow up free. We would rather be away from this country and live in freedom then be together under Communism.” When Li and her remaining children arrived in the United States four months later, she began hunting for Phuong and Holly. Despite the reluctance of an Oregon-based foster family to release their charges, the adoption papers they had filed were not yet processed and Li was able to recover her children with the help of a Catholic Priest. During a 2011 interview, she recalled the joy of the trio’s reunion. Her antipathy to Communism not only animated her plans of dividing, migrating, and eventually reuniting her family, but her service to other Vietnamese refugees. After settling and opening a successful restaurant in Decatur, Georgia during the 1980s, the Hangs would sponsor as many as 150 Vietnamese families.[10] Reclaiming her children within a context of virulent anticommunism and diaspora, Li confirmed an American narrative about the downfall and doom of Vietnam. However, her assertion of maternal rights as a refugee sheltered by the United States also underscored the failure of modernization and militarization in South Vietnam; rather than rescued or reprimanded under the discipline of American masculine power—fantasies that propelled American policy in Southeast Asia—Vietnamese women surfaced as independent forces seeking place and persuasion as parents within their new nation. Despite the trauma of dislocation and migration, experiences that many refugees have sublimated with silence, these women spoke out. Their declarations repurposed Vietnamese social norms and cultural types. Vietnamese society had valued women’s reproductive and motherly talents. The war both intensified the importance of and imperiled their duty to protect and prepare the next generation. While men’s contributions to the nation were typically connected with their military service and camaraderie, Vietnamese women demonstrated service by enduring separations from their adult children, especially enlisted sons, and waiting for peace. These gendered interpretations persisted in postwar Vietnam. Women were honored for surrendering and mourning their lost sons, a form of reverence that elided the less passive and broader roles they had played in combat and in daily life by managing households, businesses, farms, and family.[11]


Like the Hangs, many refugees replayed and refined Vietnamese constructions of gender and family within the United States using the lawsuit spearheaded by Californians to reunite them with their dependent relative. After the death of one son and one daughter in 1968, Nguyen Thi Phuc feared for the future of her remaining children. “If I don’t let [my sons] go out, then when they grow up the boy have to go military, had to go fighting. They die. I know that,” she stated during court testimony. Resisting the trope of sacrificial mother and risking retribution as disloyal to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Thi Phuc sent her boys to the United States in 1972. Two years later, she heard “the bomb and rocket shoot very close to Saigon,” which led to her placing her daughters in the care of a Mr. Jacobs who agreed to bring the pair safely to the United States. Thi Phuc insisted that she had never signed relinquishment papers and secured the promise of Mr. Jacobs that “if I stay in my country, later where I stay I be safe, he return my children to me.” However, eighteen months later, when she arrived at Fort Chafee, Arkansas—a domestic military base much like California’s Camp Pendleton that processed Southeast Asian refugees—and attempted to recover her four children, she was faced with significant hurdles. Her sons’ foster parents wished to adopt them, rather than to surrender the boys. Despite her queries to immigration officials, the United States Catholic Conference, and local press, she could not determine her daughters’ whereabouts.[12]

Dang Thi Hao showed similar resolve and met similar hindrances as she solicited assistance in winning back the two-year old daughter, whom a Catholic organization had brought to the United States, from Camp Pendleton, California officials. Fear, not neglect, prompted Thi Hao to yield the girl. She pleaded, but her pleas soon fell on deaf ears. One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”[13] Char Thi Lan also portrayed American bureaucrats, specifically those employed at the California Department of Health and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as anything but helpful. Despite her appeals, she had failed to recover her four-month-old niece whose mother had not consented to the airlift.[14] In these three cases, and others beyond, Vietnamese women not only found fault with the American government and demanded reflection on its responsibilities to refugees, but desperately tried to configure their authority and relationship to the United States through intense parental terms. They drew upon a respect for mothers in Vietnamese culture, while criticizing a war and regime that had compromised their ability to fulfill that particular function. Rather than shore up the Socialist Republic of Vietnam by gifting their children, these women had dispatched the youth to the United States where they now expected to retrieve and enact their maternal powers.

One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”

Adoption agencies and adoptive parents, including those in Cupertino, California who organized the Council for the Rights of Adoptive Families to protect their interests, had come to counter that Vietnamese children were legitimately abandoned, suffering, and available, that agencies had followed proper protocols, and that “the lawsuit was politically motivated and had nothing to do with the children.”[15] In their defense, they outlined the chaotic conditions of a war-torn Vietnam, the free will of Vietnamese mothers who chose, rather than were coerced, to relinquish their children, as well as the opportunities that these Vietnamese children would come to possess in the United States.

Confronted by conflicting reports and divisive testimonies, the Judge ultimately ruled that “the case was not properly a class action suit,” due to the fact that “each child’s situation [proved] so individual that common questions did not predominate over individual issues.” He represented the cases as being so complex and dizzyingly unique to defy the kind of generalization the plaintiffs desired. While acknowledging the confusion and occasional duplicity that had shaped the removal of Vietnamese children, he expressed skepticism about the plaintiff’s broad advocacy of reunification: “While beyond the scope of this court’s inquiry in this litigation, it is possible, in the individual circumstances peculiar to certain children, that the best interest of the children would be to not return them to their biological parents. It is not necessary to ruminate too extensively to imagine many situations where, for emotional, psychological, medical, or other reasons, a child would be better off remaining with the adoptive parents.”[16] Disappointed, but not dissuaded, select Vietnamese families initiated and often won individual custody battles in state courts—sometimes with the aid of Tom Miller and the California team who reached out to Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. and pressed the State Department to locate families in Vietnam seeking lost relatives.[17]

California, once a place of concentrated social protest where Asian immigrants had come to historically struggle and settle, soon assured that concerns of cultural autonomy, responsibility, and imperialism that were once raised during the American War in Vietnam were sustained. Debates about the constitution and influence of Vietnamese and American families exposed the long and difficult entanglements wrought by American power in Southeast Asia. As time passed and the Vietnam War became a memory to implore rather than a war to fight, Vietnamese children were reunited with their biological kin, adopted by American families, or belatedly invited to immigrate as young Amerasians. They would soon mature and become actors, as well as symbols of discussions of being representative of war legacies, constructions of ethno-racial communities, and proud patterns of assimilation.

image 5



  • This article is adapted from Allison Varzally, Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).  

[1] “Ford Vows to Continue Operation Babylift,” Los Angeles Times (4 April 1972): 4.

[2] RG 276, Box 11 Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 19, 20 May 1975, RG 276 United States District Court of California, San Francisco, National Archives at San Francisco (RG 276, NARA-SF). Note, the author accessed court records stored at the National Archives in two visits separated by two years. During this interval, the court records were reorganized and the box numbers changed. Box numbers in the 500 range reflect the most recent iteration.

[3] Dana Sachs, The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 25 June 1975, Box 11, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[4] The Center for Constitutional Rights was established in 1966 by civil rights activists seeking to advance popular, progressive causes. https://ccrjustice.org/home/what-we-do/historic-cases?page=19, accessed 11 January 2018.

[5] Plaintiff’s Memo in Support of Entry of Preliminary Injunction Incorporating Provision of Consent Order and Petition for Rehearing and Suggestion for Rehearing En Banc, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[6] Ibid., Complaint for Declaratory Relief, RG-276, NARA-SF; Affidavit of Joyce Ladner, 20 January 1976, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[7] Affidavit of Tran Tuong Nhu (28 April 1975), RG 276, NARA-SF.

[8] Heather Marie Stur labeled the competing types of Vietnamese women conceived by Americans as “damsels in distress” (those in need of rescue from communist aggression) and “dragon ladies” (those whose duplicitous behavior compromised U.S. ambitions and invited censure). See Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 176.

[9] Oktober is the boy’s “Berkeley, California” name. Author’s Interview with Nhu Miller 29 May 2012; “A” is a pseudonym for Oktober’s birth mother.

[10] Author’s Interview with Le Thi Hang, 13 October 2011.

[11] Helle Rydstrom, “Gendered Corporeality and Bare Lives: Local Sacrifices and Sufferings during the Vietnam War” Signs 37.2 (January 2012): 275-299; Lan Duong, Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012); Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, Memory is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009.)

[12] Reporter’s Transcript, Box 12, RG 276, NARA-SF. Although excluded from the specific class represented by Tom Miller because the children had arrived in the United States earlier than 1975, their stories resonated and Nguyen Thi Phuc’s had stepped forward because of the law suit, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[13] Affidavit of Thomas Miller, July 1975 box 6, Folder 2, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[14] Certificate of Attorney, 24 March 1976, Box 33, RG 276, NARA-SF.

[15] Cherie Clark, After Sorrow Comes Joy: One Woman’s Struggle to Bring Hope to Thousands of Children in Vietnam and India (Westminster, CO: Lawrence and Thomas Publishing House, 2000).

[16] Nguyen Da Yen v. Kissinger. 528 F.2d 1194. U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Cir. 5 Nov. 1975. The Judge’s concerns about the emotional costs of searches likely shaped his decision to seal the case files rather than appoint special masters to review the files. This effectively frustrated the efforts of plaintiff’s attorneys, in cooperation with the International Red Cross and Vietnamese government, to help families in Vietnam locate children in the United States. Author’s correspondence with Tom Miller, 11 July 2015.

[17] The County of Adams, State of Colorado, Dependency Action No. J6-5679-N; The People of the State of Colorado in the interest of Le Thanh Tung, aka Vo Huy Tung, aka Hoang Tung, aka Brice Zenk; Duong Bich Van v. John T. Dempsey, individually and as director of Social Services and the Michigan Department of Social Services and David and Barbara Pederson, jointly and Severally Civil Action No. 76-140 499 (23 June 1976); Peter Brennan, “Tug of Love: A Boy’s Tough Choice Between Two Mothers,” US Magazine (28 June 1977): 71-73; Le Thi Sang v. Knight, California Superior Court, San Joaquin County, docket No. 125898.


Allison Varzally is a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton. Her publications include Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines (University of California Press, 2008), which won the Theodore Saloutos Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, and most recently Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (University of North Carolina Press). She is Book Review Editor of Southern California Quarterly.

Copyright: © 2018 Allison Varzally. 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/


California’s Opportunities for Undocumented Students: Are They Enough?


Tanya Golash-Boza
Zulema Valdez

Only a quarter of the 122,600 undocumented students who graduate high school in the United States each year will attend college and less than 3 percent will complete university.[1] Undocumented students face tremendous obstacles to educational success—due to their legal status, financial hardship, and their parents’ lack of experience with higher education.[2] Many of these undocumented students have spent nearly all their lives in California and know no other home.

With nearly two and half million of the estimated eleven million undocumented migrants in the United States, California is the state with the largest number of undocumented migrants. The Golden State also offers some of the most favorable higher education policies for them.[3] Governor Gray Davis signed California Assembly Bill (AB) 540 into law in 2001, which granted undocumented students eligibility for in-state tuition. One decade later, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 130, making private scholarships available to undocumented students; and AB 131, which allowed eligible undocumented students to apply for Cal Grants and other state financial aid. These policies make higher education more affordable and accessible for undocumented students.

What happens when these students arrive on campus? In 2014, a group of undocumented students at the University of California, Merced—the institution where we work—asked us to help them find out. These students wanted to know what obstacles undocumented students face, and what opportunities allow for their success. We conducted focus groups with thirty-five undocumented students enrolled at the university, which is a Latino-majority university in California’s Central Valley.

Our findings reveal that a favorable local context, including ample university resources, targeted university policies and procedures, favorable state laws, as well as federal policies of administrative relief such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)[4] have brought a four-year degree within reach for undocumented students. As Yvette, one of our focus group participants, stated, “Here in California we’re lucky… I know other people in other states still have it really hard. If none of [these policies] had been in place, I would probably be back in Mexico.”

At the same time, undocumented students continue to experience the negative consequences associated with being undocumented, especially as it pertains to economic uncertainty and the threat of deportation, both directly and vicariously through the experiences of their family members. Joaquin captured the sentiment of many when he told us he has a “constant fear” his parents could be deported.

Financial concerns were paramount for the undocumented students we spoke to. Two-thirds of the students in our focus groups had an annual family income less than $25,000. Their undocumented parents were barely getting by and had difficulty coming up with financial support for their children in college. At the time, undocumented students did not qualify for student loans, a fact many of our participants lamented. Don, for example, explained: “We’re always worrying. Are my parents going to have enough money for the next payment?” John chimed in, saying: “It was hard because of not being able to not take out loans. My parents are low-income and even though they give us financial aid, it is not enough.” California now offers small loans to undocumented students, which alleviates some of these concerns.[5]


Don, for example, explained: “We’re always worrying. Are my parents going to have enough money for the next payment?” John chimed in, saying: “It was hard because of not being able to not take out loans. My parents are low-income and even though they give us financial aid, it is not enough.”

Although the adjustment to university was difficult for many students, they also spoke about how much support they found on campus. Sara summed up the climate at UC Merced: “I think that overall this school and the faculty and staff try to make us feel as comfortable as possible.”

California laws that legitimize undocumented students’ presence at university and enable their access to education combined with a supportive campus climate suggests undocumented students at UC Merced fare substantially better than those who came before the passage of such policies or reside outside of California. Our findings suggest that expanding access to opportunities for all undocumented people—or better yet, a massive legalization program—has the potential to change undocumented immigrants’ social and economic life chances in the United States.

Undocumented students’ daily lives are affected most by the contexts closest to them, which at the local level of UC Merced and California has improved their educational experiences and likelihood of attaining a four-year degree; and yet, they are unable to forget the larger national context, including federal policies of looming mass deportation, which underscore their own vulnerability and that of their family members, and the condition a persistent sense of exclusion and isolation. The specter of illegality forms the backdrop for undocumented students’ lives.

In a highly favorable local and state context, these students thrive in high school and move on to college. An encouraging teacher, a supportive group of friends, and a full ride to university all make their lives more bearable. Nevertheless, there are real limits to these students’ ability to excel in the absence of federal immigration reform, and their legal vulnerability is never far from their minds.

The financial constraints undocumented students confront affects their ability to enroll in needed classes in time, secure affordable housing, and dampens opportunities other students enjoy, such as taking advantage of study-abroad programs. Our findings underscore the importance of trained and skilled institutional agents and support staff at high schools and colleges who make an immediate impact on undocumented students’ decisions to apply for and attend university.

We conducted these focus groups in 2015, when President Obama was in office. The climate has changed. Whereas Obama participated in creating and supported DACA, President Trump ordered an end to the program.[6] In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, students questioned whether they should continue to apply for DACA and also expressed growing unease regarding the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the wider off-campus community. Students also expressed some doubt that UC Merced administrators and faculty were doing enough to protect them on campus and off, which led to some campus protests and calls for faculty conducting research among this vulnerable community to be more accountable to students.

With the recent rescission of DACA, students who currently have DACA will eventually lose their work permits as well as access to employment in the formal economy. DACA has had a noticeably positive impact on its beneficiaries. It has opened up economic opportunities, allowing recipients to obtain driver licenses,[7] and even to open their first bank accounts. The rescission of DACA will negatively affect undocumented youths’ access to university as it affects their ability to work and thus afford university, either while working, or while having to pay back loan debt upon graduation.

In contrast, a more favorable federal context could be life-changing. Providing a pathway to legalization would go a long way to help remedy the issues undocumented students face.

Our research provides evidence that favorable policies at the local and state level improve the life chances of undocumented youths and students in California in very real ways, with positive effects on their educational outcomes and the broader community. From our perspective, then, policy reforms at the federal level that improve the national context are necessary to alleviate the challenges undocumented students face, expand their opportunities and chances of success, and enhance their lives and those of their family members.



[1] Esther Yu Hsi Lee, “Why So Few Undocumented Immigrants Make It Through College,” Think Progress, 31 March 2015, https://thinkprogress.org/why-so-few-undocumented-immigrants-make-it-through-college-d07d30136e5/; Tanya Golash-Boza and Benigno Merlin, “Here’s how undocumented students are able to enroll at American universities,” The Conversation, 24 November 2016, https://theconversation.com/heres-how-undocumented-students-are-able-to-enroll-at-american-universities-69269.

[2] Leisy J. Abrego, “I Can’t Go to College Because I Don’t Have Papers: Incorporation Patterns of Undocumented Latino Youth,” Latino Studies 4 (2006): 212-31; Leisy J. Abrego and Roberto G. Gonzales, “Blocked Paths, Uncertain Futures: The Postsecondary Education and Labor Market Prospects of Undocumented Latino Youth,” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk 15 (2010): 144-57.; Shannon Gleeson and Roberto G. Gonzales, “When Do Papers Matter? An Institutional Analysis of Undocumented Life in the United States,” International Migration 50 (2012): 1-19.

[3] Rodrigo Dorador, “The California Dream Act: A Financial Aid Guide for Undocumented Students,” April 2015, http://www.e4fc.org/images/E4FC_CADAGuide.pdf.

[4] https://www.uscis.gov/archive/consideration-deferred-action-childhood-arrivals-daca

[5] California DREAM Loan Program, http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/paying-for-uc/whats-available/dream-loan-program/index.html.

[6] Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Trump Moves to End DACA and Calls on Congress to Act,” New York Times, 5 September 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/05/us/politics/trump-daca-dreamers-immigration.html?mcubz=3.

[7] See Laura E. Enriquez, Daisy Vazquez Vera, and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, “On the Road to Opportunity: Racial Disparities in Obtaining an AB 60 Driver Licenses,” Boom California, 28 November 2017, https://boomcalifornia.com/2017/11/28/on-the-road-to-opportunity/.


Tanya Golash-Boza is a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. She has published five books including: Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism (2016), Forced Out Fenced In: Immigration Tales from the Field (2018), and Immigration Nation: Raids, Detentions, and Deportations in Post 9/11 America (2015).

Zulema Valdez is Associate Professor of Sociology at UC Merced. Her research interests include racial and ethnic relations, entrepreneurship, and health disparities. She is the author of two books, The New Entrepreneurs: How Race, Class and Gender Shape American Enterprise (2011) and Entrepreneurs and the Search for the American Dream (2015).


Copyright: © 2017 Tanya Golash-Boza and Zulema Valdez. 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/



On the Road to Opportunity


Laura E. Enriquez
Daisy Vazquez Vera
S. Karthick Ramakrishnan

Previous research shows that undocumented immigrants face a variety of economic, educational, and social barriers due to their undocumented status.[1] However, little scholarship has specifically explored how immigrants’ undocumented status structures spatial mobility, particularly by limiting access to driver licenses. Driving without a license increases the risk of coming into contact with immigration enforcement mechanisms and thus increases the risk of deportation.[2] Even when police do not cooperate with immigration officials, there are financial consequences if the unlicensed driver is cited and/or their car is impounded.[3] These risks lead many undocumented immigrants to restructure their lives—driving only at certain times or to fewer places—and limit their economic, educational, and social participation. For example, undocumented immigrants may avoid driving farther for employment or educational opportunities or decline to engage in social activities that require driving or proof of government-issued ID.[4]

Given the anti-immigrant stance of the current federal government, sub-federal policies offer a glimmer of opportunity to undocumented Californians.[5] For example, California Assembly Bill (AB) 60, known as the Safe and Responsible Driver’s Act, went into effect January 2015. California became the tenth state to provide undocumented immigrants with access to driver licenses, moderating the consequences of illegality by allowing them to more fully participate in society.

A year after the implementation of AB 60, a reported 830,000 undocumented individuals had applied for an AB 60 driver license, roughly 31% of California’s undocumented immigrant population.[6] Yet, approximately one in four applicants were unsuccessful in obtaining a license during the first year.[7] While it is to be expected that not all undocumented immigrants would apply or successfully obtain a license, it is important to consider whether some groups are disproportionately unable to partake in this opportunity and move toward social integration.

It is not a simple matter to know whether immigrant communities in California have equal access to driver’s licenses; AB 60 was designed and implemented in a manner that explicitly prohibited the collection and dissemination of data on applicants’ race, ethnicity, and national origin. In order to overcome these limitations on administrative data, our research team conducted interviews with staff members from thirty-two immigrant-serving organizations in greater Southern California, to explore why some undocumented Californians have not applied for AB 60 driver licenses and identify the barriers that make applicants unsuccessful. We find four main barriers to successfully obtaining an AB 60 driver license:

  1. fear of revealing one’s immigration status;
  2. few acceptable identification documents when applying;
  3. language barriers; and
  4. limited advertising for testing accommodations.

Although all undocumented immigrants may face these barriers, race differentiates how these barriers emerge, making it so that undocumented immigrants who are not of Spanish-speaking, Mexican origin are more likely to be prevented from obtaining an AB 60 driver license. We argue that the implementation of AB 60 has raised unique barriers that disproportionately disadvantage some groups of undocumented Californians.

Racialized Illegality

Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, 77% are of Latina/o origin. Yet, almost a quarter of undocumented immigrants are not from Latin America, with approximately 16% coming from Asia, 4% from the Caribbean, 3% from Africa, and 3% from Europe and Canada.[8] Furthermore, the Asian undocumented population has grown to approximately 1.7 million individuals, more than tripling between 2000 and 2015, accounting for about 1 in 7 of the Asian immigrants in the United States today.[9] Despite these demographic realities, pervasive images link Mexico and Latin America with undocumented immigration.[10]

The racialization of undocumented immigration as a Latina/o issue leads to racialized illegality, wherein undocumented immigrants experience illegality differently based on how they are racialized in the United States. This racialization can draw attention to Latina/o undocumented immigrants, leading to their increased risk of interaction with police and immigration enforcement mechanisms, higher deportation rates, xenophobic interpersonal interactions, and hate crimes.[11] However, Enriquez finds that the racialization of illegality can have a silver lining, as Latina/o undocumented college students have an easier time accessing educational resources and support structures than Asian/Pacific Islander undocumented students.[12] Research also indicates that the racialization of anti-immigrant policies like Proposition 187 in California led to greater mobilization among Latinas/os than among Asian Americans.[13] Thus, regardless of whether the cause is institutional bias or differential mobilization, prior work suggests that the demographic predominance of Latinas/os and the discursive racialization of undocumented migration as a Latina/o issue may disadvantage non-Latinas/os and non-Spanish speakers in institutional settings, such as applying for AB 60 driver licenses.


We draw on interviews with staff members from thirty-two immigrant-serving organizations in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties. We purposefully recruited staff members that serve undocumented immigrants. Interviews took place in two waves: from August to October 2016 and from July to August 2017. Each interview lasted approximately one hour and followed a semi-structured interview guide. For this article, we focus on the part of the interview where staff members discussed the barriers that their clients faced when applying for AB 60 licenses and the advocacy and/or services they provided around AB 60. Data analysis involved open and discrete coding to identify four primary types of barriers. We then compared across racial groups to see how these varied.

We also conducted participant observations at twelve DMV offices in Southern California. In Los Angeles and Orange counties we selected three offices in each: one in a predominantly White area, one in a Latina/o area, and one in an Asian area. In San Bernardino and San Diego counties we selected two offices in each: one in a predominantly White area and one in a Latina/o area. We also observed two Driver License Processing Centers, offices dedicated exclusively to driver license transactions. We conducted two hours of observations at each of the offices—one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Observations focused on observing client experiences as well as staffing and application volume and demographics.


Fear of Revealing Immigration Status

Our interviews suggest that both the state of California and non-profit organizations allocated significant funding to raise awareness about AB 60. Organizations reported holding community forums, distributing information at community events, putting on workshops, and designing infographic roadmaps describing the application process and requirements to apply. Latina/o organizations’ longstanding work on undocumented immigrant issues ensured that they had the institutional capacity to quickly disseminate information about AB 60 to their clients. Organizations’ work to raise awareness about AB 60 licenses revealed that undocumented immigrants from all countries of origin feared the potential repercussions of disclosing their immigration status to a government agency. A representative from the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice shared: “There was a lot of misinformation. There were people saying, ‘don’t get the AB 60 driver license, you’re going to get deported.’” Organizations worked to counteract these fears, highlighting how the AB 60 licenses are not marked differently in DMV databases and that the documents they submit with their application are not available in any public record.[14]

However, organizations recognized that in some cases the fear of being targeted for deportation was valid, particularly within the Latina/o community where individuals were more likely to have criminal records due to racialized policing practices. Law enforcement and immigration agencies often depend on driver license databases to identify and locate individuals as part of their investigations, posing a risk for AB 60 applicants with criminal histories.[15] A representative from the Mexican Consulate suggested that these practices can affect individuals convicted of minor offenses: “Operations that ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has done tend to sort of get individuals with low criminal records. So sometimes … DUIs, failure to appear, failure to pay tickets.” A few organizations suggested that these types of minor criminal records were more likely to haunt Latinas/os because many of these infractions result from their higher risk of being pulled over for unlicensed driving due to racial profiling and police procedures.[16]

Stalled in Secondary Review: Few Acceptable Identification Documents

To apply for a license, applicants must provide documentation to confirm their identity; however, acceptable documentation is stratified by country of origin.[17] Essentially, the less secure the identification document, the more documents must be provided to substantiate an applicant’s identity. Applicants can present a single foreign document if it is an identification card issued by the Mexican government (i.e., passport, consular card, or electoral card) or a valid foreign passport with a verifiable U.S. social security number. Applicants from Korea and nine Latin American countries can provide two foreign documents, a valid passport and an approved identification card. All others must submit as many supplementary documents as possible, which are sent to secondary review for verification. This secondary review process disproportionately targets non-Latinas/os and can significantly delay or even prevent their application.

Notably, undocumented individuals from Mexico have the most straightforward identification process because they are only required to provide one identification document that is readily available via same-day processing at one of the six Mexican consulates in greater Southern California. According to a representative from the Mexican Consulate in San Bernardino, this unique opportunity to provide a single identification document resulted from close collaboration: “The DMV worked very close with the government of Mexico in order to have a system.” Indeed, the Mexican Consulate changed their consular card in November 2014 to meet DMV requirements by incorporating new safety features such as encrypted data and biometric measures.[18] In this case, long-standing relationships among the Mexican Consulate, organizations, and the DMV helped them establish a straightforward identification process for Mexican-origin immigrants applying for AB 60.

While this benefits Mexican-origin immigrants, those in more rural areas of California may still have trouble traveling to a Consulate.

All non-Mexican applicants are required to present multiple forms of identification, preventing their timely and successful application for a driver license. Prior to October 2016 (when Korean identification cards were approved),[19] the DMV had only approved consular or national identification cards from Latin American countries as a secondary form of identification. A representative from the Thai Community Development Center explained: “There was that issue and the fact that our folks couldn’t present their Thai national ID card. So they would [only] have their passport, and everyone was basically getting pushed into secondary review because they didn’t have the appropriate IDs that the DMV was looking for.” Unlike the Mexican Consulate, other national governments and non-Latina/o serving organizations had to spend time developing relationships with the DMV so that they could get their identification cards approved. This forces almost a quarter of the undocumented immigrants who are not from these eleven approved countries into the drawn-out secondary review process. Organizations found that many applicants lost the desire to pursue their license because the delay in their application process. In some cases secondary review could take so long that their one-year driving permit would expire before they receive a license, forcing them to re-start the entire process.

It is important to recognize that some groups are not able to get identification documents from their foreign governments. A representative from the Korean Resource Center shared, “The problem with the consular ID is that some nations don’t have it. And that creates inequities between immigrants. Some African nations, their government [sic] isn’t functional so there’s no way they’re going to get national ID. Some countries don’t even have consular offices nearby so they have to travel to Washington DC, which is not possible.” A representative from Korean Community Services also mentioned that Korean men between the ages of 18-35 have difficulties obtaining a consular ID because they are not serving their military obligation.

“The problem with the consular ID is that some nations don’t have it. And that creates inequities between immigrants. Some African nations, their government [sic] isn’t functional so there’s no way they’re going to get national ID. Some countries don’t even have consular offices nearby so they have to travel to Washington DC, which is not possible.”

Lost in Translation: Language Barriers

At all steps in the application process, AB 60 applicants have to navigate potential language barriers. A representative from the Thai Community Development Center explained,

“There’s a lot of language access barriers at all levels. Getting information. If they actually call the DMV, they only greet you in Spanish and English, so if I was a monolingual non-English, non-Spanish speaking person, how would I navigate a telephone system that I can’t understand? Even though the DMV has interpretation services available, how are you able to get through [to] that when you can’t even understand what you’re being told? A lot of the materials haven’t been translated yet, but are currently in the process.” Indeed, the DMV offers limited translation services, which disproportionately constrains non-Latina/o undocumented immigrants who do not speak Spanish.

Language barriers arise throughout the entire application process. First, applicants must acquire information about the AB 60 application process and make an appointment. However, the DMV’s website only provides AB 60 information in English and Spanish. Our observations at twelve DMV offices also found that most AB 60 resources were only available in English and Spanish. Second, applicants must interact with DMV employees as they apply and take tests. Our DMV office observations suggest that, regardless of the racial demographics of the area, there was often a DMV employee available who spoke Spanish, but not necessarily other languages. Third, applicants must study for their driver license knowledge test. While the tests are available in thirty-one languages, study materials are only available in fourteen non-English languages.[20] Finally, the behind-the-wheel driving exam is only administered in English; those who do not have a working understanding of English may struggle at this final stage.

Our DMV observations suggest that most non-Spanish speaking applicants navigate their limited English language skills by bringing someone to serve as their interpreter; however, study materials and knowledge tests remain unavailable in many languages. At the beginning of this project in 2016, DMV study materials were only available in ten languages: Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Farsi, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. Since then, four new languages were added to the list: Hindu, Japanese, Khmer, and Thai. These additions are the result of active advocacy by community organizations to expand language access. Yet, significant gaps in language offerings remain. In particular, representatives from Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) and Semillas de Esperanza spoke about indigenous Latina/o groups being some of the last to find out about AB 60 and among the most disadvantaged in receiving language assistance at the DMV.

Finally, all groups share some concerns that the language translations provided are too formal and lack cultural competency. Many organization representatives expressed concerned that the DMV was translating materials verbatim and not including any cultural context. A representative from Asian Americans Advancing Justice explained, “Certain words exist in English but it might not exist in Filipino, in Korean, in Thai, in Swahili, in different languages.” A representative from the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition also believed that this issue also impacts Spanish speakers since the majority use colloquial Spanish and the DMV’s Spanish translation includes more difficult and technical terms that cause confusion. Thus, even when translated materials are provided, language barriers can still contribute to failing the knowledge exam. 


Beyond the Computer Exam: Limited Advertising of Literacy and Technology Accommodations

The driver license knowledge test is offered as a computer-based test. However, undocumented immigrants, especially those from less educated and low-income backgrounds, may often struggle with limited technological skills. A representative from the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego shared, “They’re using now these touch screens that doesn’t allow people to come back to certain questions, or is very confusing sometimes when they skip a question and they don’t realize if they don’t go back to it or [that] they’re even able to go back to it, it’s qualified as a no answer so it’s wrong.”

The driver license knowledge test also poses unique barriers for individuals who struggle with literacy. A representative from the Mexican Consulate explained, “We do have a large population of individuals who can’t read or write. And those tend to be indigenous. And those are the ones that haven’t taken advantage of the license. … [Another] reason why is because they don’t know how to study.”

Attempting to accommodate individuals with special needs, the DMV offers several alternative methods for completing the driver license knowledge exams, including listening to an audio version of the test or having an examiner ask the questions.[21] These services appear to have been developed for general applicants who are visually disabled and it is unclear if these services extend to individuals with limited literacy. Most applicants are also not aware of these alternative options and information about these accommodations is not available on the DMV’s AB 60 website. A representative from the North County Immigration Task Force in San Diego, shared, “Many people do not know that they can ask for an oral test. Or people are being forced to take the test in the computer when they don’t feel comfortable doing it.” To counteract this, they encourage their clients to ask for paper or oral exam accommodations. Yet, the audio test is only available in fifteen non-English languages, and an audio version of the study materials is only available in English and Spanish.

Coordination and Advocacy: Broadening the Impact of AB 60

Two and a half years after the implementation of AB 60, it is important to reflect on who is struggling to benefit from this policy. We find that significant barriers remain for all undocumented immigrants. However, it is also clear that the implementation of AB 60 has disproportionately hindered the social integration of a significant portion of undocumented immigrants—namely those who are not of Spanish-speaking, Mexican origin. For the most part, this is the product of two factors: institutional capacity (the DMV was already equipped to work with Spanish-speaking clients), and strategic coordination (Latina/o-serving organizations were poised and funded to raise awareness about the new law, and the Mexican Consulate worked closely with policy makers to ensure that the identification documents available to Mexican undocumented immigrants would be accepted).

As these barriers revealed themselves, immigrant-serving organizations took note and began to advocate for clients. A coalition of organizations wrote an open letter to the DMV Director outlining the unique barriers faced by the African, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander undocumented communities, advocating for policy changes to increase their access.[22] Organizations, particularly Asian/Pacific Islander serving ones, translated information to clients—in person, over the phone and on their own websites. Some consulates looked to the Mexican Consulate as they began looking to coordinate with the DMV to ensure that their identification cards met DMV guidelines. Coalitions and networks abounded as organizations looked to one another for advice and resources, referring clients to others when they were not equipped to offer services.

Despite these barriers, California is poised to issue a million AB 60 licenses to undocumented immigrants by the end of 2017.[23] This is a substantial win for the undocumented community, and will contribute to countless positive outcomes for undocumented immigrants, their families, community members, and California as a whole. At the same time, our fieldwork in Southern California has revealed substantial barriers faced by Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrants, and there are good reasons to believe immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean face similar barriers. With other states looking to California for leadership on immigrant integration, the state has a unique opportunity and obligation to ensure that all share the benefits of policies such as immigrant driver’s licenses equally. 



Thank you to our project collaborator, Dr. Allan Colbern, and our research assistants, Rocio Garcia and Asbeidy Solano. The research received funding from the UC California Immigration Research Initiative. Special thanks to all interview participants, community organizers, and officials who worked to establish and implement AB 60.

[1] Leisy J. Abrego, “Legal Consciousness of Undocumented Latinos: Fear and Stigma as Barriers to Claims-Making for First- and 1.5-Generation Immigrants,” Law & Society Review 45 (2011): 337-70; Nicholas P. De Genova, “Migrant ‘Illegality’ and Deportability in Everyday Life,” Annual Review of Anthropology 31 (2002): 419-47; Joanna Dreby, Everyday Illegal: When Policies Undermine Immigrant Families (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015); Shannon Gleeson and Roberto G. Gonzales, “When Do Papers Matter? An Institutional Analysis of Undocumented Life in the United States,” International Migration 50 (2012): 1-19; Shannon Gleeson, “Labor Rights for All? The Role of Undocumented Immigrant Status for Worker Claims Making,” Law and Social Inquiry 35 (2010): 561-602; Roberto G. Gonzales, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015); Cecilia Menjívar and Leisy J. Abrego, “Legal Violence: Immigration Law and the Lives of Central American Immigrants,” American Journal of Sociology 117 (2012): 1380-1421; Laura E. Enriquez, “Multigenerational Punishment: Shared Experiences of Undocumented Immigration Status within Mixed-Status Families,” Journal of Marriage and Family 77 (2015): 939-53; Laura E. Enriquez, “A ‘Master Status’ or the ‘Final Straw’? Assessing the Role of Immigration Status in Latino Undocumented Youths’ Pathways out of School,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43 (2017): 1526-1543.

[2] Amada Armenta, Protect, Serve, and Deport: The Rise of Policing as Immigration Enforcement (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017); Mary Romero, “Racial Profiling and Immigration Law Enforcement: Rounding up of Usual Suspects in the Latino Community,” Critical Sociology 32 (2006): 447-73.

[3] Ryan Gabrielson, “Sobriety Checkpoints Catch Unlicensed Drivers,” New York Times, 13 February 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/us/14sfcheck.html?_r=0

[4] See Laura E. Enriquez, “Gendering Illegality: Undocumented Young Adults’ Negotiation of the Family Formation Process,” American Behavioral Scientist 61 (2017): 1153-1171; Leah Schmalzbauer, The Last Best Place: Gender, Family, and Migration in the New West (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014); Angela Stuesse and Mathew Coleman, “Automobility, Immobility, Altermobility: Surviving and Resisting the Intensification of Immigrant Policing,” City & Society 26 (2014): 51-72. There is also compelling evidence that access to driver’s licenses reduces the incidence of hit-and-run incidents. See Hans Lueders, Jens Hainmueller, and Duncan Lawrence, “Providing Driver’s Licenses to Unauthorized Immigrants in California Improves Traffic Safety,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (2017): 4111-4116.

[5] Pratheepan Gulasekaram and S Karthick Ramakrishnan, The New Immigration Federalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Allan Colbern, “The ‘California Package’ of Immigrant Integration and the Evolving Nature of State Citizenship,” Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (2016),  http://www.irle.ucla.edu/publications/documents/IRLEReport_Full.pdf; Monica W. Varsanyi, “Interrogating ‘Urban Citizenship’ Vis-À-Vis Undocumented Migration,” Citizenship Studies 10 (2006): 229-49; Monica W. Varsanyi, Taking Local Control: Immigration Policy Activism in U.S. Cities and States (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

[6] DMV, “AB 60: 605,000 Driver Licenses Issued in First Year,” (2016), accessed on 28 August 2017, https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/pubs/newsrel/newsrel16/2016_0; Joseph Hayes and Laura Hill, “Undocumented Immigrants in California,” Public Policy Institute of California (2017), http://www.ppic.org/publication/undocumented-immigrants-in-california/

[7] DMV, “AB 60: 605,000 Driver Licenses Issued in First Year.”

[8] 2015 estimates of the unauthorized population from Center for Migration Studies. Retrieved from http://data.cmsny.org, 15 September 2017

[9] S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Sono Shah, “One out of Every 7 Asian Immigrants Is Undocumented” (2017), accessed on 18 September 2017, http://aapidata.com/blog/asian-undoc-1in7/.

[10] Leo Chavez, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008); Otto Santa Ana, Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002).

[11] See Armenta, Protect, Serve, and Deport; Amada Armenta, “Racializing Crimmigration: Structural Racism, Colorblindness, and the Institutional Production of Immigrant Criminality,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 3 (2016): 82-95; Tanya Golash-Boza and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, “Latino Immigrant Men and the Deportation Crisis: A Gendered Racial Removal Program,” Latino Studies 11 (2013): 271-292; Brentin Mock, “Hate Crimes against Latinos Rising Nationwide” (2007), accessed 20 September 2017, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2007/hate-crimes-against-latinos-rising-nationwide. Dennis Romero, “In the Era of Trump, Anti-Latino Hate Crimes Jumped 69% in L.A.,” LA Weekly, 29 September 2016, http://www.laweekly.com/news/in-the-era-of-trump-anti-latino-hate-crimes-jumped-69-in-la-7443401.

[12] Laura E. Enriquez, “Border-Hopping Mexicans, Law-Abiding Asians, and Racialized Illegality: Analyzing Undocumented College Students Experiences through a Relational Lens,” in Studying Race Relationally, ed. Natalia Molina, Daniel Martinez HoSang, and Ramón Gutiérrez (Oakland: University of California Press, forthcoming).

[13] S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, Democracy in Immigrant America: Changing Demographics and Political Participation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[14] For examples, see Drive CA, “AB60 FAQ” (n.d.), accessed on 31 August 2017, http://driveca.org/drive-ca-faq; Drive CA, “AB60 in an Era of Resistance: Know Your Rights” (2017), accessed 31 August 2017, https://www.aclunc.org/sites/default/files/20170208-ab60_era_of_resistance_know_your_rights.pdf. President Trump’s administration has made it clear that policies and priorities can shift at any time, potentially leaving applicants vulnerable to being identified by government records. For example, see the case of the New York City municipal ID card: Liz Robbins, “New York City Should Keep ID Data for Now, Judge Rules,”  New York Times, 21 December 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/21/nyregion/new-york-city-should-keep-id-data-for-now-judge-rules.html?mcubz=; Colin Lecher, “Facing a Trump Administration, NYC May Push Its Immigrant Data Kill Switch,” The Verge, 15 November 2016, https://www.theverge.com/2016/11/15/13640344/trump-president-immigration-data-idnyc-new-york-city

[15] NILC, “Documents Obtained under Freedom of Information Act: How U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement and State Motor Vehicle Departments Share Information” (2016), accessed 31 August 2017, https://www.nilc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Info-Sharing-FOIA-Summary-2016-05.pdf.

[16] Armenta, Protect, Serve, and Deport.

[17] DMV, “AB 60 User Friendly Guide to Document Options to Obtain a California Driver License” (2016), https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/wcm/connect/11a86d62-f848-4012-bc7d-4192bdef4f00/doc_req_matrix.pdf?MOD=AJPERES.

[18] Secretaria de Relaciones Exteriores, “Mexico’s New Consular Id Card: Improving the Secure and Reliable Identification for Mexicans Abroad” (2014), accessed 31 August 2017, https://mex-eua.sre.gob.mx/images/stories/PDF/MatriculaConsularMexicanaingnueva.pdf.

[19] Hyoung Jae Kim, “New ID to Grant Rights to the Undocumented to Obtain Driver’s License,” Korea Daily, 22 September 2016, http://www.koreadailyus.com/new-id-to-grant-rights-to-the-undocumented-to-obtain-drivers-license/.

[20] DMV, “AB 60 Driver License” (2017), accessed 8 August 2017, http://dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/ab60.

[21] DMV, “Alternative Methods for Completing the Driver License Knowledge Tests,” accessed on 31 August 2017, https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/dl/dl_info#alternative.

[22] Drive CA, “Re: AB 60 Implementation Concerns from African, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Undocumented Communities in California” (2015), http://driveca.org/cms/assets/uploads/2015/05/AB60-African-Asian-Concerns-Letter-to-DMV_4-2-15.pdf.

[23] Alexei Koseff, “Undocumented Immigrant Driver’s Licenses near Milestone in California,” The Sacramento Bee, 26 July 2017, http://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article163623103.html.


Laura E. Enriquez is Assistant Professor of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She received her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the educational, economic, political, and social experiences of undocumented young adults who immigrated to the United States as children.

Daisy Vazquez Vera is a doctoral student in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

S. Karthick Ramakrishnan is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Associate Dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. He received his Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University. His research focuses on civic participation, immigration policy, and the politics of race, ethnicity, and immigration in the United States.

Copyright: © 2017 Laura E. Enriquez, Daisy Vazquez Vera, and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan. 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/


Every Wall is a Door


Image provided by Jill M. Holslin.

Ronald Rael

My first encounter with the borderwall between the United States and Mexico came summer 2003. I had left New York after 9/11, and was invited by the artist Marcos Ramirez (“ERRE”) to visit his Tijuana studio. His directions were simple: “It’s the first building on the right just as you go through the revolting door.” Having grown up in the linguistic borderlands of a bilingual family, I found it equally plausible that Marcos was either making a shrewd commentary on the door that served as the pedestrian port of entry into Tijuana, or that he simply meant revolving.[1] The richness of the ambiguity stayed with me, and led me to the idea that architecture—in this case, a door in a wall—can be endowed with different meanings, either by accident or by design, and that architectural expression can be at the same time serious and humorous, and a powerful tool in polemicizing an architecture fraught with controversy.

That same summer I met the architect Teddy Cruz and was introduced to his vision for design that transects the border. Fascinated by his approach of thinking perpendicular to the border, I became interested in the line of the border itself and the diversity of the landscapes it parallels. This eventually led me on a journey exploring the borderlands of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, where my creative practice worked on several design projects in the Big Bend region—projects that consistently explored ideas of political, cultural, and material dualities in design and architecture. At the same time my studio was exploring how to make buildings using mud and concrete (which we saw as conceptually parallel to the contrasts of wealth and poverty, the United States and Mexico, contemporaneity and tradition), we also considered ways that these material systems—and in many ways, the cultural values and economies of scale embodied by these materials—could be interwoven: two distinct elements working in concert. Some of these ideas culminated in a project entitled Prada Marfa, on which we collaborated with artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. Constructed near the U.S.-Mexico border along a desolate highway in the Chihuahuan desert, a faux Prada store, built of mud and containing the 2004 line of Prada shoes and purses, both epitomizes and exaggerates the cultural and geopolitical dichotomies of the borderlands.

During the construction of Prada Marfa, we often witnessed helicopters descending on the horizon to pick up migrants walking through the desert. In fact, during our first visit to the building site for the project, several Border Patrol vehicles blocked our passage and agents surrounded us, demanding to know what exactly what we were doing there.[2] The heightened security in the borderlands, in preparation for the imminent expansion of wall construction, further fueled our desire to consider how design could be a vehicle for addressing the politics of border security.

As a finalist in the WPA 2.0 International Competition, my creative studio was able to explore the possibilities for political expression through architectural design. The competition, organized by the UCLA’s cityLAB, was inspired by the Depression-era Work Projects Administration (WPA) and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This stimulus bill (the largest investment in public works in the United States since the 1950s) dedicated $150 billion to infrastructure, and designers were asked to envision a new legacy of publicly supported infrastructure—projects that would explore the value of infrastructure not only as an engineering endeavor but also as a robust design opportunity for strengthening communities and revitalizing cities.[3] Our entry, Borderwall as Infrastructure, sought to integrate water, renewable energy, and urban social infrastructure into the design for the borderwall and to challenge the very existence of the wall in its conception, function, and future. At that time, the design proposals suggested an intervention. Since the wall was well on its way to being constructed on a massive scale, the attempt was made to demand wall builders to be more concerned with the landscapes that were about to be divided by the wall, and we made that pitch to lawmakers in Washington D.C. with the proposals. The project was the catalyst for the book, Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary; however, this book no longer seeks to intervene in the wall’s construction but instead seeks to consider its transformation—an expanded study on rethinking the existing wall by redesigning it into something that would exceed its sole purpose as a security infrastructure and ameliorate the wall’s negative impacts and, perhaps through intervention, make positive contributions to the lives and landscapes impacted by the borderlands.

The work compiled in Borderwall as Architecture continues the exploration through a collection of anecdotes, essays, models, drawings, stories, and speculations. In addition, short reactions are offered by border scholars that present intimate and diverse perspectives of the wall. Thus, it also protests against the wall—a protest that employs the tools of the discipline of architecture manifest as a series of designs that challenge the intrinsic architectural element of a wall charged by its political context. The wall is a spatial device that has been inserted into the landscape, but with complete disregard for the richness, diversity, and complexities of the areas in which it was built and proposed. This book advocates for a reconsideration of the existing wall, both through design proposals inspired by people living along the border who see the wall as something to respond to in positive ways and through proposals that are hyperboles of actual scenarios that have taken and continue to take place as a consequence of the wall.


These propositions presume the somewhat ridiculous reality of nearly 800 miles of border fortification while suggesting that within this enormously expensive and extremely low-tech piece of security infrastructure lie opportunities for the residents of this landscape to intellectually, physically, and culturally transcend the wall through their creativity and resilience. The work is meant to be at once illuminating, serious, and satirical in order to expose the absurdity and the irony of a wall meant to divide but that has brought people and landscapes together in remarkable ways.

Untitled-1The work is meant to be at once illuminating, serious, and satirical in order to expose the absurdity and the irony of a wall meant to divide but that has brought people and landscapes together in remarkable ways.


Since the publication of the book we find ourselves immersed in a kind of borderwall zeitgeist. The wall is increasingly in the public consciousness with the assistance of president Donald Trump. During his campaign he loudly proclaimed that he would build a wall, and audiences cheered as if finally someone had arrived who would build the wall, albeit ignorant of the 650 miles of already existing walls that divide private property, public lands, Native American heritage sites, wilderness areas, and cities. In this new era of calls for wall building, the wall is no longer simply a political symbol of security. It has emerged as a cultural object. Steven Colbert raised the question: “America no longer has the world’s tallest building, but could our planned Mexican borderwall be the world’s longest building?” The wall is the manifestation of our morals, our desires, and our artistic and social pursuits. It appears in beer commercials, such as the Tecate beer commercial that transformed the wall into a bar joining the two countries together; or a Hardee’s commercial, where scantily clad beach volleyball players play a bi-national game of “wall y ball”, as has been played for decades along the border to celebrate a bi-national heritage, but in this case to decide if the latest hamburger is more “Tex,” or more “Mex.”

Because of the questionable functionality of the wall, artists and designers see its shortcomings as doorways into questioning the wall, smuggling creativity into the borderlands demonstrating that creativity is an important component of resistance. For example, Ana Teresa Fernandez, a Mexican artist from Tampico, Mexico, participates in erasing the wall wielding a paintbrush. By selecting paint the color of the sky, Fernandez subverts the prison-like solidity of the rusty steel of the borderwall with a thick coat of blue paint so that the columns become one with the gaps between them, creating a visual illusion—and perhaps for some, a premonition—that the wall is no longer there. Residents of Tijuana have taken much pride in this installation, protecting it from others painting over it or removing it. In many ways, they consider it a kind of monument—albeit an invisible monument. The irony is that if the wall is ever dismantled, Fernandez’s invisible wall might remain.

Just two weeks ago the prototypes for Trump’s borderwall were unveiled near San Diego. One of Trump’s hopes for the wall, in addition to being “big” and “fat,” is that it would also be “beautiful.” One of the 30’ x 30’ prototypes, which cost $406,318 to construct, is painted sky blue, and I can’t help wonder if borderwall activism has come full circle, with ELTA North America, the construction company who built this wall, co-opting Ana Teresa’s invisible wall to meet the demands of the call for proposals which required the wall to be “aesthetically pleasing.” There are seven other prototypes constructed to demonstrate Trump’s ambitions for borderland security, most at a cost approaching half a million dollars.[4] While it is uncertain what is to become of these prototypes, what is certain is that, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “every wall is a door,” and in this case, each of these walls are doorways to a continued interrogation by artists and designers whose creativity has the ability dismantle the desires for division.


Image courtesy of Ana Teresa Fernández and Gallery Wendi Norris.


[1] A revolving door in Spanish is puerta revolvente. Revolvente might easily be misinterpreted as a cognate for revolting, because the Spanish reflexive verb revolver also can refer to an upset (turning) stomach.

[2] An expanded text on Prada Marfa can be found in Dominique Molon, Ronald Rael, Michael Elmgreen, and Ingar Dragest, Prada Marfa (Berlin: Walther König, 2007).

[3] For more information about WPA 2.0, see About WPA 2.0, University of California, Los Angeles, http://wpa2.aud.ucla.edu/info/index.php?/about/about/.

[4] Jennifer Medina, Josh Haner, Josh Williams, and Quoctrung Bui, “Eight Ways to Build a Border Wall,” The New York Times, 8 November 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/08/upshot/eight-ways-to-build-a-border-wall-prototypes-mexico.html.   


Ronald Rael is Associate Professor in the departments of Architecture and Art Practice at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Earth Architecture, a history of building with earth in the modern era that exemplifies new, creative uses of the oldest building material on the planet, and earlier this year, Borderwall as Architecture: A Manifesto for the U.S.-Mexico Boundary, together with Marcello Di Cintio, Norma Iglesias-Prieto, and Michael Dear. The Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum have recognized Rael’s work, and in 2014 his creative practice, Rael San Fratello, was named an Emerging Voice by the Architectural League of New York.

Copyright: © 2017 Ronald Rael. 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/





Juan Felipe Herrera

listen to the voice of the people install the voice of the people paste the voice of the people paint the voice of the people on all of your public spaces day and night and notice what change is all about and notice what Democracy is all about Listen to the voice of the people install the voice of the people paste the voice of the people paint and Listen to the voice of the people install the voice of the people paste the voice of the people paint the voice of the people on all of your public spaces day and night and notice what change is all about and notice what Democracy is all about

—not tomorrow                                today




escucha la voz del pueblo aplica la voz del pueblo engoma la voz del pueblo, pinta la voz del pueblo de día y de noche en todos tus sitios públicos y date cuenta de que se trata la Democracia Escucha la voz del pueblo aplica la voz del pueblo engoma la voz del pueblo pinta y Escucha la voz del pueblo aplica la voz del pueblo engoma la voz del pueblo pinta la voz del pueblo en todos tus sitios públicos y date cuenta de que se trata el cambio y date cuenta de que se trata la Democracia

—no mañana                                       hoy



Juan Felipe Herrera
is the son of migrant farm workers and has held positions at Fresno State University and UC Riverside. He served both as Poet Laureate of the United States (2015-2017) and was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012 to serve as California’s Poet Laureate. He is the author of several collections including 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border (City Lights, 2007), Undocuments 1971-2007 (City Lights, 2007), Half the World in Light (University of Arizona Press, 2008), and Notes on the Assemblage (City Lights, 2015). “People” is a new poem (translated here into Spanish by Gabriella Ruelas and Omar Chavez) and will be published in the forthcoming collection, I am Talkin’ to You.

Copyright: © 2017 Juan Felipe Herrera. 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/