Tag: Race

Postcards Series

In Rancho Santa Fe, We Were Orientals

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

Wendy Cheng

In 1986, when I was nine and my brother was ten, my parents moved us to a place I have never claimed; a place that has never claimed me. Rancho Santa Fe, California: former land of the Santa Fe Railroad, whose twisted experiments created 100-foot tall stands of rare eucalyptus across the wealthy community. Lilian Rice’s Spanish fantasy utopia. A golf course and a tennis club. The place I spent the better part of my youth; the place I first saw a ghost; the place my father died. The place where we were aliens, and alienated. And yet: it was home.

In Rancho Santa Fe, houses were full of pastels and light and high, arched entryways; they were pristine and cool as tombs. Dirt trails flanked the two-lane asphalt roads, and there were no sidewalks, mailboxes, or streetlights. The trails were made for people on horseback, an element in the landscape that might have made it feel rural, except that they led to the nearby, members-only golf course. Residents were proud of the rural fiction, though, and liked to refer to the town as “The Ranch.”

In 1986, my mother and her business partners (a trio of Taiwanese immigrants) sold their first biotech company, and there was money to move up in the world. The house we bought was modest for the area: a four-bedroom ranch house built in the 1950s decorated with old linoleum; faded, pastel-striped wallpaper; and mustard-and-brown-colored tiles in the room that would be mine. The only thing I remember from when we went to look at the house is the earthy smell of ground beef frying in a pan, a smell that to me was exotic and slightly nauseating in its plainness – devoid of the sweet pungency of sizzling garlic, ginger, and soy sauce that infused most of the meat cooked in our house.

When our parents-to-be left Taiwan for graduate school in Detroit, Michigan and Madison, Wisconsin – taking the only pathway available to them out of an island under martial law – they severed their future children’s connection to land, to our relatives, to our ancestors; to culture, customs, and language. We were born, my brother and I, as stunted blank slates, both over- and under-determined by the racial and cultural identities we would never be able to fully grasp, while those were all most other people could see.

We lost the daily fish and vegetable and fruit market in Lotung, where my mother’s mother went since she was a child in the 1930s, where everyone knew her and the fishmonger knew exactly which fish she would want; where she could walk and speak with ease.

We lost the cracked land in Pingtung, where my father’s father was an architect, and whose streets my father could traverse without a map even decades later, when he himself was an old man. (Watching him eat slices of sticky honeyed yams with a toothpick in the warm glow of the nightmarket stalls at the age of 60, I saw him become a child again.)

All my brother and I had was what we could see in front of us, every day: the graduate student family apartment at the University of Wisconsin with the red carpet and creaking metal swing set outside where we were each born and took our first steps. The small house with the brick fireplace in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. The slightly larger house in Del Mar, where we became best friends with our neighbors’ friendly freckled children, who ran barefoot with dirty feet. And then the ranch house on the big land in Rancho Santa Fe.

Courtesy of the author.

In Rancho Santa Fe, even though by then it was already 1986, we were Orientals. We were Orientals because there were so few of us at first: just ___ ___, in my brother’s grade, whose family was so ridiculously rich they owned a pet monkey, and ___ ___, in my grade, whose father was white and wore a toupee. We were Orientals because my brother’s big white athletic friends decided it would be fun to call him “Yang” (this was not our last name). We were Orientals because I was afraid to invite friends to eat dinner at our house, because they were grossed out and said so about things like squid ink on rice. We were Orientals because our parents never made friends with our friends’ parents, not really, but only other Taiwanese people, who usually lived at least a half-hour drive away. We were Orientals because the local security patrol would slow down and tail my father when he was out walking by himself, and because my grandfather – who did not speak English and whose face was brown – was always assumed to be the gardener.

I didn’t find out until much later that one of the reasons there were so few of “us” was because up until the 1970s, people of color were prohibited from living in Rancho Santa Fe unless they were servants.

“Rancho Santa Fe an unusual undertaking: New Colonization Project,” La Times, March 4, 1923

As in so many places, the land tells the history. But we couldn’t see – didn’t know – the Native people, the colonizers, the proselytizers, the developers, and workers who had made it so: The Kumeyaay-Ipai, who knew and stewarded every plant, animal, and season. The first exploratory incursions by the Spanish. The brutal mission period, which irrevocably transformed the land and decimated its peoples. The relatively brief Mexican rancho period, before Anglo settlers insinuated themselves into the landholding Californio families and reduced them to relics of a romanticized past. And then the coming of the railroad conglomerates and Anglo developers, who cloaked their proprietary violence with romantic fantasies of “gentleman” farming and the Spanish past.[1] The Santa Fe Land Improvement Company (SFLIC). Developer Ed Fletcher. SFLIC vice president William Hodges. They imprinted their names on the landscape: Rancho Santa Fe (the “town” in which we lived). Fletcher Cove (the beach we went to most often). Lake Hodges (the lake 10 miles inland where we once tried and failed to catch fish; where, as a teenager, I went with friends to try to see shooting stars; and where, in 2010, a 17-year-old female jogger was raped and murdered).

In the early 1900s, the SFLIC found the alien eucalyptus wood they had planted all over the former Osuna ranch too soft for railroad tracks. By the 1920s, they had decided to convert the land into an exclusive housing development; an embodiment of the Spanish fantasy past. They consulted with Ed Fletcher, who would later be instrumental in developing neighboring, racially exclusive Solana Beach, and ended up working with architect Lilian Rice of the firm Requa and Jackson. Rice traveled to Spain and modeled the architecture of Rancho Santa Fe’s “town” after rural villages in Spain. Instead of a village well, though, there was a gas station designed to look like a well. Instead of peasants, Rancho Santa Fe’s developers sought to recruit wealthy, white, “family” and leisure-oriented residents.

Ed Fletcher also leased some of the land to Chinese and Japanese farmers “and directed them to prove the effectiveness of the land for cultivating fruits and vegetables” (a trick that would repeated twenty-some years later by the U.S. government when it strategically incarcerated skilled Japanese American farmers on sparsely populated lands they wished to develop for agriculture). In 1923, the farmers’ leases expired, and California’s recently passed alien land laws made it difficult for them to renew.[2] The citrus groves Asian American farmers were forced to abandon later became a hallmark of Rancho Santa Fe’s brand of luxurious country living. (“Such plans did not include Asian farmers.”[3]) Mexican and Native American workers contributed their expertise, too, and did the heavy lifting. But they – we – couldn’t live there unless they (we) served a white person.

Cheng’s parents. Courtesy of the author.

While the house was plain, its grounds were not: the backyard featured a long, rectangular pool accompanied by a floral-tiled fountain that spewed water from the cement mouth of a satyr. In front of the house, along the curved, gravel driveway, was a citrus grove with fifty fruit-bearing trees, a remnant of the SFLIC’s hubristic experiments on the land.

Our parents bought the house because of the orange trees, or at least that’s what they told us. The fifty citrus trees included Valencias, Navels, Tangelos, Satsuma tangerines, Meyer lemons, and limes. (Another benefit, my father said, was that we could not see our neighbors and they could not see us.)

To the roses and palm trees, our parents added pomelo trees, guava trees, night-blooming cereus (smuggled on an airplane from Taiwan by family friends), camellias. Formosan azaleas. In the garden area, they planted yam leaves, garlic chives, and later, kale and chard. Kyoho grapevines wound across the trellis of the front entrance, shading low bushes of Formosa azaleas. When my grandparents came to stay with us, my grandmother spent long hours in the garden while my grandfather tended the orange grove.

We put crawfish, captured from the golf course creek, in the fountain. We drove to the beach and caught grunion during their nighttime mating runs, when the beach became alive with wriggling silver life.

Once, my grandfather killed a four-foot-long snake slithering close to the house with a shovel to the head; my brother kept its heavy coiled body, still twitching, in a plastic bag in his room overnight. Coyotes left their scat on the front walkway and in the backyard, and great horned owls hooted and swooped at twilight from the hundred-foot stand of eucalyptus trees that loomed over our backyard. Another time, I found a dead bunny on the driveway, probably hit by a car but looking entirely pristine. Within minutes, though, its luminous black eyes were picked out by crows.

After my brother and I left for college, one after the other, I didn’t come back with any regularity for twenty years to this house, to this land, to my parents (and my brother never really did). For me to come home, it took my father becoming terminally ill, learning how to be present during his slow decline and subsequent death; and then after that, a renewed and transformed relationship with my mother, which grew with strength and beauty and joy through our shared love of my young child. Through him, she took care of me once again; and finally, I began to take care of her, too.

During the long months of the covid-19 pandemic, the house and land brought us peace and renewal. Isolation became safety, room to breathe. The luxury to breathe, when so many could not, and still cannot, amidst this time of immeasurable suffering and murderous neglect.

Now, my mother has decided to sell the house and with it, the land. It is time. It’s all too big for just her, and my brother and I can’t – won’t – move back with our families. We will leave some of my dad here – under the camellias, in the orange grove. The places he loved the most. The trees that nourished us with their fruit and beauty for more than thirty years might be bulldozed by the next owner. The perfume of the lemons, the tart sweetness of the Satsumas – these trees that have borne witness to four generations of our family – gone in an afternoon.

A couple is very interested. They write a letter. The husband owns a business. The wife is an expert equestrian and looks forward to bringing her horse to The Ranch. (I instantly see the orange grove uprooted for a horse stable.) The husband wants to be close to the golf course. They have two young sons. (“I worked so hard to make this house perfect for a family,” my mother says.) They love The Ranch. I know they will fit in instantly, in a way we never did.

What is land when it is property?

We buy it (if we are among the fortunate). We sell it. We leave parts of ourselves in it. We move on and start all over again, until we are gone, too. And yet the land endures.


Notes

[1] In 1946, Carey McWilliams described the “Spanish fantasy heritage” as a key fiction upon which Anglo Americans settlers in California based their claims of rightful succession to a European past (Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Kaysville, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1946; 1980).

[2] Information on the Asian American farmers is from Phoebe Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008),p. 162.

[3] Kropp, p. 163.

Wendy Cheng is an associate professor of American Studies at Scripps College. She is the author of The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) and coauthor of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2012). Her creative nonfiction essays have been published in Tropics of Meta and the Cincinnati Review.

Postcard Series

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots” 
  6. Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
  7. Nicolas Belardes, “South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains”
  8. Ruth Nolan, “Cima Dome, East Mojave National Preserve”
  9. Marco Vera, “My Tata’s Frutería”
  10. George B. Sánchez-Tello, “Oh Salinas! Song, Story and Punk Rock Behind the Lettuce Curtain
  11. Kenji C. Liu, “To eat a fig is to swallow ghosts”
Articles

Deeply Rooted: Immigrants and the Hidden Histories of California’s Wine Industry

Julia Ornelas-Higdon

California’s contemporary wine industry has the allure of an exclusive product created by and for privileged populations. Mediterranean-inspired wineries and gentle rolling hills covered with lush vineyards dot landscapes across the state. California boasts varied wine regions extending from Napa and Sonoma, to the Central Coast, to Temecula, and to the Central Valley and beyond. Often portrayed as the purview of Italian-Americans, the state’s twentieth-century wine industry rose to prominence in the post-WWII decades and made some of California’s most storied wine houses, such as Mondavi, Gallo, and Sebastiani, household names. Further, the industry’s focus on its postwar development has built a romantic veneer around California wine that obscures its diverse, working-class roots. By looking backwards to the origins of the California wine industry, historians can claim a space for the racialized groups who built the industry and who have been rendered invisible in its most recent iterations. This history also destabilizes race and class boundaries, ultimately questioning and redefining what it means to belong in the contemporary wine industry.  

In the last twenty years, prominent Mexican-American wineries have emerged to challenge stereotypes about who represents the “typical” California winemaker. Media coverage about Robledo, Mi Sueño, Mario Bazan Cellar, Maldonado Vineyards, and Ceja in Napa and Sonoma has celebrated the growth of these wineries, which collaborated to organize the Mexican-American Vintners Association (MAVA) in 2010.[1] Many of the MAVA member wineries were founded and directed by working-class Mexican immigrants and their Mexican-American children.[2] They developed from their respective families’ Mexican immigrant roots as well as from decades of expertise as vineyard workers. As L. Stephen Velasquez has argued, “The transnational migrants’ sense of cultural identity and the traditions they brought from various regions in Mexico helped build Napa-Sonoma wineries and enabled these families to move from vineyard workers to winemakers and vineyard owners. The stories of these families’ migration, hard work, and success illustrate the American dream….” In doing so, Mexican-American winemakers have used their work to achieve “economic and social inclusion.” [3] Despite this, their histories are relatively limited within the literature on the contemporary wine industry, with the exception of scholars like Velasquez who have begun to explore this work.[4]

Mexican-American winemakers also have been featured in recent cultural productions.The 2019 documentary, “Harvest Season” profiled Mexican-American winemakers and migrant workers within the California wine industry. The Smithsonian National Museum of American History highlighted the contributions of Mexican-Americans to the wine industry in its exhibit, “Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.”[5] The Smithsonian exhibition of “La Familia Robledo” displayed items from the Robledo Family Winery, including family patriarch Reynaldo Robledo’s hat, tools, and a wine label from their 2004 vintage of Los Braceros. This red wine honors the Mexican migrant workers who labored in the Bracero program in the 1950s and 1960s. Significantly, Los Braceros puts vineyard workers—who are usually relegated to the background and rendered invisible to the consumer—prominently on display and implicitly recognizes their contributions in creating the finished product, wine. Los Braceros challenges contemporary stereotypes about California wines by highlighting the reality of who is working behind the scenes to produce the beverage in that bottle. (And yes, I have personally sampled Los Braceros—for research purposes, of course—and it is sublime.)

Despite the success of Mexican-American wineries like Robledo, and their families’ long histories in Napa and Sonoma, they are still portrayed as novelties and atypical wineries. And, wine labels similar to that of Los Braceros thatpresent farmworkers as the public face of the industry remain the exception. The continued success of Robledo and other MAVA wineries challenges dominant, white-only narratives about the wine industry in the twenty-first century. Their visibility within the industry helps assert the right of Mexican immigrants, especially agricultural workers, to be in the United States during a period where these rights are continually violated and challenged.

Los Braceros Wine Label

By ignoring the industry’s history before the twentieth century, we obscure the multiethnic, working-class roots of California’s historic wine industry that reframe the novelty of Mexican-American family wineries as part of a more complex and varied legacy. If we look to the origins of winegrowing in California during the eighteenth-century Spanish colonization of Alta California and move forward into the wine industry’s commercialization in the nineteenth century, it becomes apparent that California’s wine industry was born out of the labor of multiracial, working-class immigrants. These included California Indians and Mexican-Californios, as well as EuroAmerican, Chinese, and German migrants. Between the 1780s and the 1880s, these laborers and winegrowers transformed regional landscapes by importing foreign grape varietals, planting new vineyards, and producing California’s first vintages. Along with Native Californians, these racialized immigrant groups were fundamental in building the nascent wine industry all while they were largely excluded from citizenship in California. As such, the wine industry emerged as part of a larger system of race-making and citizenship formation at play in nineteenth-century California.  

This article reveals the importance of these groups, and not just Italian-Americans, in establishing one of California’s most storied agricultural industries. Although popular books about the twentieth-century wine industry predominate in comparison to scholarship about the  pre-World War II wine industry, historians have begun to explore the complex roots of winegrowing in California.[6] This article builds on this existing literature by examining the wine industry’s varied immigrant and working-class growers and laborers, and by claiming a place for California Indians, who are often left out of contemporary conversations about the region’s history. Although Italian-Americans certainly were instrumental in shaping the wine industry we know today, they did not actually enter the scene in large numbers until the late nineteenth century, roughly one hundred years after winegrowing was first established in California. More importantly, their successes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries grew out of the foundation built by the laborers and winemakers who preceded them. Thus, while wineries founded by immigrant laborers and their children might seem like a novelty in the twenty-first century wine industry, in actuality, they are far from anomalous when situated within the broader scope of its historic origins. I argue that exploring its nineteenth-century roots reveals a complex wine industry. This hidden history challenges elite, white-only narratives that predominate within the contemporary California wine industry and highlights the historical erasure of Native Californians and other ethnic agricultural workers.

Mission Origins, Immigrant Roots: Historical overview of the California Wine Industry

As with many other agricultural ventures in California, the roots of viticulture and winemaking lie in the mission system. Under the leadership of Junípero Serra, the Franciscans constructed mission outposts up and down the coast of Alta California beginning with San Diego Alcala in 1769. After the construction of mission churches, the Franciscans’ key priority was to establish formal agricultural cultivation. First, instructing Indians in the agricultural arts were part of the process of Hispanicization, which furthered the Spanish conquest and colonization of Alta California.[7] Second, doing so would secure a regular supply of food that could sustain the missions. Still, scarcity plagued the missions throughout the 1770s. In his frequent letters to government officials and church leaders in Mexico City, Junípero Serra frequently pleaded for materials, especially religious and liturgical goods to furnish the new missions and allow for further expansion.[8] Without fundamental religious items—such as candles, crucifixes, and  eucharistic hosts—the Franciscans could not carry out their primary objective, to convert and baptize Indian neophytes. These shortages included sacramental wine, which was of paramount importance to the Franciscans. They could not say the mass without access to a regular supply of wine, which had to be shipped from Mexico; this threatened to hamper their evangelization.[9] To remedy these shortages, the Franciscans directed mission Indians to begin planting the region’s first vineyards in the late 1770s at San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel, with the first mission wines produced in the mid-1780s.[10]

The success of mission vineyards relied on the migration of plants, ideas, and, most significantly, of people. Because native California grape varietals are not suitable for wine, the Franciscans imported vitis vinifera grape vines from the Iberian Peninsula via Mexico.[11] More importantly, the Franciscans relied heavily on the expertise and labor of Indians from Baja California, who migrated north with the Franciscans.[12] These campesinos serve as liaisons between the Franciscans and local Indians, teaching and supervising their labor in constructing mission buildings and in clearing fields, planting, irrigating, and harvesting crops.

At its core, winegrowing was established for the sole purpose of furthering the conquest and colonization of Alta California. Wine was not simply a beverage, but rather was a tool of conquest. The Franciscans used viticulture to Hispanicize California Indians, and they used wine produced from mission grapes to convert them to Christianity. Indian laborers planted vineyards, brought in the harvest, and crushed the grapes. In doing so, mission Indians literally sowed the seeds of viticulture and wine in California. Because the Franciscans used agricultural labor to further conquest, they often eschewed modern farming methods that had the potential to make vineyard labor easier on Indian farmworkers. For example, they implemented recommendations from an antiquated Spanish agricultural manual, which meant that Indians pruned grape vines using the “head-pruning” method, essentially training vines to grow into low bushes instead of along wires, trellises, and posts.[13] This did lessen the labor initially required to plant vineyards, but the bending required to prune and harvest the grapes was especially strenuous. This was in keeping with labor across the missions, which consisted of backbreaking stoop labor and other farm work that was not mechanized until the 1820s, long after mechanized cultivation reached other regions of North America.[14]

During the Franciscans’ fifty-year tenure in Alta California, winegrowing remained a largely non-commercial venture. Although there was limited trade of wine between the missions, presidios, and pueblos of Alta California, and evidence of illicit alcohol sales (particularly to Indians, who were prohibited by law from enjoying the fruits of their labors outside of the mass), Spanish colonial laws restricted the wine trade. Winegrowing took a commercial turn following a series of political events that dramatically altered California. First, Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1822 opened California to foreign traders. Second, the Mexican government passed the Colonization Act of 1824 to entice colonists to its northwestern frontier.[15] Finally, in 1833 the secularization of the missions opened up vast tracts of land originally intended for Indians, but which ended up in the hands of large-scale land owners.[16]

Together, these legal changes directly led to the expansion of viticulture around the southern missions and the Pueblos of Los Angeles.[17] Plentiful lands were available on which newcomers could plant vineyards, as were markets to trade in wines and aguardiente.[18] The vineyardists and vintners driving this commercial turn included Mexican-Californios of the elite ranchero class and immigrants from Europe and the United States. In addition to their work as cattle ranchers, Californios Tomás Yorba and Vicenta Sepúlveda Yorba produced wine and aguardiente from their vineyards at Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana. They traded their ranch goods, including hides, tallow, wine, and aguardiente, with Americans like William Heath Davis.[19] Likewise, French immigrant Jean Louis Vignes arrived in Los Angeles in 1833. He purchased one hundred acres in the center of the Pueblo of Los Angeles near the river, naming his land El Aliso and renaming himself Don Luis Vignes to assimilate into Mexican-Californio culture. While his previous ventures in France and the Sandwich Islands have failed, in California he found success. Vignes planted extensive vineyards and orange orchards and built a winery and brandy distillery. Vignes likely produced his first vintage in 1837; by the early 1840s, he was shipping his wines across California.[20]

One aspect of winegrowing that did not change after secularization was that former mission Indians continued to labor in vineyards and wineries on lands previously belonging to the missions, but that were now owned by Californios and other immigrant landowners. In short, these two groups benefited from the continued racialization and exclusion of Indians outside the parameters of citizenship and landownership in Mexican California. At Rancho Cañon de Santa Ana, Tomás Yorba and Vicenta Sepúlveda Yorba relied on former Mission Indians who had previously lived at San Gabriel and San Juan Capistrano.[21] By mid-1830s, they employed nearly seventy Indians across their ranch.[22] Likewise, Don Luis Vignes hired Gabreliño Indians from the nearby San Gabriel Mission to tend his orchards and vineyards. Although Indians continued to work in a state of servitude on newly expanded vineyards, their lives were not as regimented as they had been in the missions. Landowners did not force Indians to live according to prescribed religious programs, nor did they control every aspect of Indians’ lives.[23] As with Spanish law, Mexican laws ostensibly prohibited Indians from legally purchasing alcohol, but this did not prevent winemakers from selling wine and aguardiente to Indians. Thus, this second generation of Mexican-Californio and immigrant winegrowers was responsible for forging California’s first commercialized wine industry, which continued to be driven by Indian labor. Yet, they found ways to categorize Indians as second-class citizens, including their continued exclusion from the privilege of enjoying wine, the product of their labor.  

The wine industry evolved yet again between the 1850s and 1880s following the American conquest of California. Scholars have demonstrated how American legal and economic systems, the racial exclusion of former Mexican citizens, and violence all functioned to reorganize the power and wealth in California, ultimately dispossessing Mexican-Californios of their land and property rights.[24] A new influx of EuroAmerican immigrant vineyardists and winemakers were part of this group of new landowners that emerged in the decades following the Mexican-American War. They further commercialized and professionalized the industry by organizing trade groups and lobbying for government assistance.[25] As they did so, these American newcomers helped to redefine the boundaries whiteness and citizenship away from their previous understandings in Spanish and Mexican California. Beginning in the 1860s, German immigrants emerged as a group of influential winegrowers in the Los Angeles area, which continued as the state’s hub of winegrowing. In 1854, German musicians John Frohling and Charles Kohler left San Francisco to become winegrowers in Los Angeles.[26] There, they purchased a vineyard and founded Kohler & Frohling Winery. By 1858, their wines were earning prizes at state agricultural fairs.[27] The winery was so successful that the firm collaborated with George Hansen, a Los Angeles surveyor, to establish a vineyard colony, which could sell grapes to their winery and allow for increased production.[28] Incorporated in 1857, the Los Angeles Vineyard Society was formed as a joint-stock company by a group of German immigrants from San Francisco. The company purchased land along the Santa Ana River, planted vineyards, and built a town, Anaheim.[29]  Within ten years, Anaheim’s winegrowers claimed that their vineyards were producing six hundred thousand gallons of wine annually; although this was likely an overestimation, Anaheim’s growers were recognized among the most productive in the state.[30] Likewise, German immigrant Leonard J. Rose arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1860s. He settled in the San Gabriel Valley on a ranch he called Sunny Slope and soon established himself as a vineyardist and horse breeder. By the 1880s, his winery was producing four hundred thousand gallons of wine and one hundred thousand gallons of brandy annually.[31]

This period also witnessed the continued influence of other European immigrants. Mathew Keller, an Irish immigrant, established a productive vineyard in Los Angeles.[32] Pierre and Jean-Louis Sansevain (nephews of Jean Louis Vignes) had purchased their uncle’s vineyard and winery, El Aliso, in the early 1850s. They expanded production, built new wine cellars, and were known for their award-winning, unadulterated wines.[33] A Hungarian immigrant with a colorful past, Agoston Haraszthy was a well-known winegrower in Sonoma.[34] Haraszthy emerged as a vocal leader within agricultural trade groups, even traveling to Europe on behalf of the California State Agricultural Society to gather grape varietals and learn about best practices from the continent’s best wine regions.[35]

At the same these time new immigrants replaced Mexican-Californio winegrowers and landowners, the decline of California Indians in the 1860s brought different groups of racialized workers to the state’s vineyards and wineries—groups whose race and class status continued to render them ineligible for citizenship in American California.Many growers hired working-class Mexicans and Indians from other parts of the southwest. For a period, Anaheim’s vineyardists employed Yaqui Indians from Arizona and northern Mexico who had fled the Sonoran borderlands to escape war with the Mexican government.[36] Leonard J. Rose regularly hired crews of “Mexican peons” from the nearby rancheria to work in his vineyards at Sunny Slope.[37] Chinese immigrants also worked in vineyards, particularly as they came off working on the transcontinental railroad in the 1870s. Even in the wake of growing anti-Chinese sentiment in California during the 1870s, and with the rise of federal Chinese exclusion in 1882, winegrowers sought out crews of Chinese vineyard workers.[38] Between the 1850s and 1870s, the colonists at Anaheim sent for Chinese workers from San Francisco several times and eventually established a segregated Chinatown in town. [39] For Anaheim’s growers, the Chinese “proved to be good farmers, were industrious, sober, clean, peaceful and in every way a welcome contrast to the Indians.”[40] At Sunny Slope, Leonard J. Rose employed Chinese workers because they were “absolutely dependable and honest, rarely losing a day and seldom quitting their jobs.”[41] Agoston Haraszthy hired crews of Chinese workers to clear land and plant over seventy thousand vines at Buena Vista Vineyard.[42] Using their experience with dynamite from the railroads, they dug hundred feet of tunnels to construct wine cellars at Buena Vista.[43] Leland Stanford also relied on Chinese laborers to tend his vineyards at Vina Ranch in the Sierra Nevada foothills and faced angry pushback from anti-Chinese nativists in the surrounding areas.[44]Growers favored the Chinese because they stereotyped them as being more docile than other populations, and because they could pay them lower wages.[45] Indeed, these presumed characteristics which excluded the Chinese from access to landownership and citizenship rights made them ideal workers from the perspective of vineyard owners.

At its core, these first iterations of the California wine industry emerged from the labor of diverse groups. This historic wine industry drew from the various populations of immigrants—Chinese, German, and Irish, among others—pouring into nineteenth-century California, and put them side-by-side with California Indians and Mexican-Californios. From landowners to vineyard workers, vineyards and wineries were unique spaces where diverse groups interacted and worked together. Most importantly, racialized vineyard and winery workers built the industry.They cleared land for vineyards, planted grape vines, harvested the grapes, and crushed them with their feet. At the same time they engaged in this important work, racialized Indian, Mexican, and Chinese laborers were largely excluded from the boundaries of citizenship in nineteenth-century California. As such, their contributions to building the wine industry have been largely forgotten and ignored.

In the late nineteenth century, a series of environmental and economic catastrophes nearly crippled the California wine industry, marking another pivot in the business.[46] At this juncture, a group of enterprising Italian-Americans based in San Francisco reorganized and modernized the wine industry, helping to save it from demise. Within the complex racial hierarchies of California, immigrant winemakers and entrepreneurs from northern Italy were able to capitalize on their ambiguous racial status in ways that Chinese and working-class Mexicans in California, and even southern Italian immigrants working in the eastern industries were not.[47] As Simone Cinotto has argued, these immigrant winemakers had access to “rights from which Asian immigrants were legally deprived, such as naturalization and landowning, and that were de facto denied to Mexicans by virtue of their colonized status,” which, in in turn, allowed Italian immigrants to “envision a path of mobility to independent occupations as farmers and winemakers—a social condition so deeply entrenched with the notions of freedom and whiteness in the United States.”[48] Ultimately, these northern Italian immigrants occupied a racial “middle-ground” that provided access to the privileges associated with whiteness in California, such as landownership and capital, that enabled them to pursue wine cultivation not as wage workers, but as vineyardists and wine entrepreneurs.

The Italian-Swiss Colony was founded by prominent Italian-American merchants in San Francisco under the leadership of Andrea Sbarboro, who spearheaded the purchase of their land, Asti, in Sonoma County. Although the company struggled in its early years, it took off in the late 1880s when Pietro Carlo Rossi took over management of the company. Rossi implemented modern winemaking techniques that enabled the Italian-Swiss Colony to standardize bulk production of wine and ship its product to national and international markets.[49] In 1894, Sbarboro and Rossi also helped found the California Wine-Makers’ Corporation, a syndicate of winemakers who organized to compete with the California Wine Association monopoly of the wine markets.[50] The CWA and the CWMC subsequently engaged in a “wine war” over market control. Eventually, the CWA absorbed the CWMC, with Rossi becoming a director within the CWA.

California Wine Association Headquarters before 1906 earthquake

Similarly, Secondo Guasti founded the Italian Vineyard Company in 1900, planting vineyards on a former Mexican ranch in Cucamonga. His proximity to the new Southern Pacific Railroad afforded Guasti easy access to distant markets. At the turn of the twentieth century, Italian-American winemakers helped to inaugurate a modern wine industry—more corporate and funded by investors, like the Bank of Italy—built on the foundation established by the diverse growers who preceded them. Unlike their predecessors, these growers preferred to hire Italian-American workers, and not racialized vineyard laborers, as had their predecessors. Guasti occasionally hired temporary Japanese workers, but Sbarboro went so far as to ban Asians.[51] Guasti and Sbarboro’s antipathy towards Asian workers was not unique given the context of the period. They were operating in the decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 amid growing public outrage against Asian farmers that would, ultimately, lead to California Alien Land Law of 1913 targeting Japanese immigrants. However, their exclusion of non-Italian-American farmworkers was uncommon. Consequently, over time the wine industry became less diverse. These winegrowers flourished for the next twenty years, but Prohibition coupled with the Great Depression ultimately weakened California’s wine industry until its renaissance in the post-war period

The Contemporary California Wine Industry

Moving forward to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, winegrowing has expanded to occupy an outsized role in California agriculture. Currently, wine grapes and wine occupy an important role in the state and national agricultural economies. Wine grape acreage in California grew steadily from just over 100,000 acres in 1960 to nearly 600,000 acres in the most recent statistics, with considerable spikes in production during the 1970s and 1990s.[52] More recently, the number of bearing acres of wine grapes increased by 70,000 acres between 2008 and 2017.[53] Casual observers across the state can note these changes in land use as orchards along Interstate-5 in the Central Valley have been replaced with vineyards. Within the state agricultural economy, over 590,000 acres of vineyards were harvested in 2018, producing over 4,285,000 tons of grapes with a total value of over $4.3 billion.[54] In 2018, California wine was a top export commodity for the United States, ranking fourth among all agricultural products.[55] Nationally, California wines made up over 91% of US exports of wine, with a value of nearly $1.5 billion in 2018.[56] California wines ship all over the world, with top-receiving countries in the European Union, Canada, Japan, and China. Wine drives trade, and it serves as a cultural ambassador for California, drawing tourism dollars in wine regions across the state.

Clearly, the wine industry occupies an important place in contemporary American society and for California itself. The story California wine does not conform to the mythology of Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, nor is it solely Italian-American. It is a uniquely American story in that the industry was built on the model of commercial, large-scale growers who relied on racialized wageworkers. But, why should we care about the historic origins of the wine industry, particularly since there is not a linear history between its birth in the missions and contemporary industry?

By historicizing the wine industry’s deep immigrant roots and racial diversity, we can challenge contemporary narratives about the wine industry as an exclusive and predominately white space. First, wine cultivation in California grew from the labor of mission Indians, California’s first farm workers. This history claims a space for California Indians within this lauded industry. Second, this history also challenges contemporary arguments about immigration, belonging, and citizenship by unveiling the California wine industry’s deep immigrant roots. These hidden histories contests the erasure of racialized groups from the wine industry. In doing so, this article underscores the longevity and historical significance of immigrant agricultural laborers, who are largely ostracized outside of the body politic as outsiders or temporary sojourners across the United States. There is no linear line connecting nineteenth-century winemakers and vineyard laborers to contemporary Mexican-American vintners and agricultural workers. However, by putting these groups in conversation with each other and framing them within the historical trajectory of the wine industry, we begin to challenge and disrupt exclusionary racial and class stereotypes about the contemporary California wine industry.This hidden history challenges the erasure of these groups from contemporary narratives about California wine, and about the immigrants who built the wine industry. In the twenty-first century, immigrants and their descendants continue their legacy, reshaping this industry and challenging what it means to belong in the contemporary United States at a moment when immigrants are facing historic levels of nativism, exclusion, and detainment across the country. Exploring the roots of the wine industry makes a space for Mexican-American winemakers and vineyard workers to claim their stake in the rich valleys of Napa, Sonoma, and beyond.

Notes

[1] “Our Rich History,” MAVA, accessed 8/8/19, http://nsmava.org/about/.

[2] Henry Lutz, “Napa Valley’s Mexican-American Vintners have a Story to Tell,” Napa Valley Register, August 21, 2018, https://napavalleyregister.com/news/local/napa-valley-s-mexican-american-vintners-have-a-story-to/article_9845ea3e-1df1-56f9-8680-b3faa1549244.html.

[3] L. Stephen Velasquez, “Doing it with ‘Ganas’: Mexicans and Mexican Americans Shaping the California Wine Industry,” Southern California Quarterly 100: 2 (Summer 2018): 217-218.

[4] For example, see Frances Mollno, Deep Roots and Immigrant Dreams: A Social History of Viticulture in Southern California, 1769-1960 (PhD Diss., Claremont Graduate University, 2008) and L. Stephen Velasquez, “Doing it with ‘Ganas’: Mexicans and Mexican Americans Shaping the California Wine Industry.”

[5] The exhibit, which opened in 2012, documents American winemaking in the post-WWII period. For discussion of the Robledo Family winery, see https://americanhistory.si.edu/food/wine-table/la-familia-robledo. Accessed August 6, 2019.

[6] For discussion of the wine industry’s early history, see Erica Hannickel’s Empire of Vines: Wine Culture in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), which demonstrates how nineteenth-century viticulturists across the United States shaped continental expansion, empire, as well as ideas about race and miscegenation. Similarly, Linda Frances Mollno, Deep Roots and Immigrant Dreams: A Social History of Viticulture in Southern California, 1769-1960 (PhD Diss., Claremont Graduate University, 2008), Thomas Pinney’s History of Wine in America Volume I: From Beginnings to Prohibition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007),Victor W. Geraci’s “Fermenting a Twenty-First-Century California Wine Industry,” Agricultural History 78, no. 4 (October 1, 2004), 438–65, and Vincent P. Carosso’s The California Wine Industry: A Study of the Formative Years (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951) have documented the evolution of California’s historic wine industry.

[7] For further discussion of the Hispanicizing goals of the Franciscan missionaries, see Steven W Hackel, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 280-287; David Sweet, “The Ibero-Aerican Frontier Mission in Native American History,” in The New Latin American Mission History, ed. Erick Langer and Robert H. Jackson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 4; Robert H. Jackson, “The Formation of Frontier Indigenous Communities: Missions in California and Texas,” in New Views of Borderlands History, ed. Robert H. Jackson (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998), 134.

[8] Junípero Serra, Writings of Junipero Serra, Volume I, ed. Antoinin Tiber, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955), 62-63, 221.

[9] Junípero Serra to Father Francisco Palou, written at Monterey, June 21, 1771, Writings of Juniper Serra, Volume I, ed. Antonine Tiber, O.F.M. (Washington, D.C.: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1955), 243.

[10] Some scholars date the first Mission vintage between 1781 and 1784 at San Juan Capistrano, but likely the first wines were produced a few years later. Thomas Pinney, History of Wine in America, 238.

[11] Later generations of growers named this the Mission grape. See Thomas Pinney, “The Early Days in Southern California,” in The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, ed.  Doris Muscatine, et al. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 4.

[12] Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 19.

[13] Alonso de Herrera, Agricultura General (Madrid: Don Antonio de Sancha), 1777. Originally published in the 16th century, this treatise underwent multiple revisions by various authors well into the 19th century. Several missions, including Santa Bárbara and Santa Clara, owned copies of the reference book. See Mission Santa Clara (Mission Santa Clara Archives, R.G. 1, Series V: Secularization and the Formation of California’s First Diocese, 1833-1851, Box 17, Folder 14: Mission Santa Clara Inventory of 1851 (Reproduction, Transcription, and Translation), 1851; Thomas Pinney, “The Early Days in Southern California,” in The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, 2.

[14] Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Fields, 28.

[15] Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration,” in Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush, ed. Ramón A. Gutiérrez, and Richard J. Orsi (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 305; Douglas Monroy, “The Creation and Re-creation of Californio Society,” in Contested Eden, 180-181.

[16] After 1833, large land grants were redistributed to Californios at a rapid pace. Relatively few Indians received title to land, and those who did got small plots of land. See Steven W. Hackel, 388-389; Miroslava Chávez-García, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004), 62.

[17] Los Angeles was the winegrowing hub of California until the 1880s. 

[18] Aguardiente was distilled grape brandy. It was the most common distilled alcohol in California before the Gold Rush. Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 238.

[19] William Heath Davis, Seventy-five Years in California (San Francisco: J. Howell, 1929), 222.

[20] Scott Macconnell, “Jean-Louis Vignes: California’s Forgotten Winemaker,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 11, no. 1 (April 2011): 90-91; Vincent P. Carosso, 8.

[21] Wayne Dell Gibson, Tomas Yorba’s Santa Ana Viejo, 1769-1847 (Santa Ana, CA: Santa Ana College Foundation Press and Rancho Santiago Community College District, 1976), 79; Testimony of Jose Dolores Sepulveda, The Anaheim Water Company, et. Al., Plaintiffs and Respondents vs. The Semi-Tropic Water Company, et al., Defendants and Appellants, Transcript on Appeal in the Superior Court of Los Angeles, State of California, Quoted in George Harwood Phillips, Vineyards & Vaqueros: Indian Labor and the Economic Expansion of Southern California, 1771-1877 (Norman: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2010), 162.

[22] Terry E. Stephenson, Don Bernardo Yorba (Los Angeles: G. Dawson, 1941), 32-33.

[23] Steven W. Hackel, 369.

[24] For further discussion of American conquest in California, see Linda Heidenreich, “This Land Was Mexican Once:” Histories of Resistance from Northern California, (University of Texas Press, 2007); John Mack Faragher, Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015); Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Lisbeth Haas, Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769–1936 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Chávez-García, Miroslava, Negotiating Conquest Gender and Power in California, 1770s to

1800s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004.

[25] Between the 1850s and 1870s, newly organized trade groups lobbied the state legislature to support research, education, and the distribution of plants and materials among viticulturists throughout the region. For example, see M.G. Gillette, Report of Special Committee on the Culture of the Grape-Vine in California: Introduced by Mr. Morrison Under Resolution of Mr. Gillette, to Examine into, and Report Upon, the Growth, Culture, and Improvement, of the Grape-Vine in California (Sacramento: Charles T. Botts, State Printer, 1861), 3-10.

[26] “An Account of the Wine Business in California, from Materials Furnished by Charles Kohler,” MSS C-D 111, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

[27] “Native Wines,” Los Angeles Star, October 23, 1858.

[28] Leo J. Friis, Campo Aleman: The First Ten Years of Anaheim (Santa Ana: Friis-Pioneer Press, 1983), 15.

[29] Dorothea Jean Paule, “The German Settlement at Anaheim” (Master’s Thesis, University of Southern California, 1952), 10, 175; Leo J. Friis, 15-17

[30] Anaheim Wine Growers’ Association, Anaheim: its People and Products, 1869, 3.

[31] L. J Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1959).

[32] California State Agricultural Society, Third Annual Fair, Cattle Show, and Industrial Exhibition, Held at San Jose, October 7th to 10th, 1856 (San Francisco, California Farmer Office, 1856), 21.

[33] “Report of the Visiting Committee,” in Transactions of the California Agricultural Society During the Year 1858 (Sacramento:C.T. Botts, State Printer, 1859), 286.

[34] AHungarian who claimed a dubious noble heritage, Haraszthy had already left his mark on Wisconsin, San Diego, and San Francisco where he was charged with fraud in his management of the U.S. mint. Possibly to rebuild his reputation, Haraszthy abandoned his business and moved to Sonoma to take up winegrowing in 1857. For further discussion see Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 273.

[35] Agoston Haraszthy, “Report on Grapes and Wine of California,” in Transactions of the California State Agricultural Society During the Year 1858, 313; “California Commission on the Culture of the Grape-Vine” in Report of Commissioners on the Culture of the Grape-Vine in California, (Sacramento: Benj. P. Avery State Printer, 1861), 7. 

[36] Nicole Marie Guidotti-Hernández discusses the violence against Yaqui Indians along the US-Mexico border in Unspeakable Violence: Remapping U.S. and Mexican National Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[37] Leonard John Rose Papers, MSSHM 70724: Box 1, 25, Huntington Library, San Marino.

[38] For discussion of anti-Chinese public discourse and laws, see Sucheng Chan, This Bittersweet Soil: The Chinese in California Agriculture, 1860-1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 370 and Natalia Molina, Fit to be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939, (University of California Press, 2006), 12.

[39] Minutes of the Los Angeles Vineyard Society, September 20, 1857, Los Angeles Vineyard Society Vertical File, Anaheim Public Library; Mildred Yorba MacArthur, Anaheim: The Mother Colony (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1959), 30.

[40] Lucile Dickson, “The Founding and Early History of Anaheim, California,” Annual Publications, Historical Society of Southern California (XI, 1919), 30-31.

[41] L. J Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, Fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1959), 81-82.

[42] Sucheng Chan, 242.

[43] Agoston Haraszthy, The Father of California Wine (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1979),28.

[44] “Chinese Argonauts,” Bulletin of the Chinese Historical Society of America, VII, No. 4 (April 1972), 7.

[45] For example, see comparison of wages paid to L.J. Rose’s workers according to their race. Leonard J. Rose, Jr., L. J. Rose of Sunny Slope, 1827-1899: California Pioneer, fruit Grower, Wine Maker, Horse Breeder (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1959), 107.

[46] The phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s and the overproduction of grapes in California destabilized the grape and wine markets. For further discussion, see Erica Hannickel, 161-167; Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 343-355.

[47] Simone Cinotto, Soft Soil, Black Grapes: The Birth of Italian Winemaking in California, (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 23.

[48] Simone Cinotto, 15.

[49] Simone Cinotto, 25-28, 157-158.  

[50] The CWA would control the California wine market until Prohibition. For further discussion see Ernest P. Peninou and Gail G. Unzelman, The California Wine Association and its Member Wineries, 1894-1920, (Santa Rosa, CA: Nomis Press, 2000), 72-80; Thomas Pinney, A History of Wine in America, 358-363.

[51] Simone Cinotto, 3, 139, 143

[52] J.M. Alston, J.T, Lapsley, and O. Sambucci, “Grape and Wine Production in California,” in California Agriculture: Dimensions and Issues ed. R. Goodhue, P. Martin, and B. Wright, (Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics, Berkeley, CA, 2018), 4-5, https://s.giannini.ucop.edu/uploads/giannini_public/a1/1e/a11eb90f-af2a-4deb- ae58-9af60ce6aa40/grape_and_wine_production.pdf.

[53] California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2017-2018,” 63, accessed July 25, 2019, www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics.

[54] California Department of Food and Agriculture, “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2018-2019,” 68, accessed July 27, 2020, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/PDFs/AgExports2018-2019.pdf.

[55] California Department of Agriculture, “California Agricultural Exports 2018-2019,”4, accessed July 27, 2020, “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2018-2019,” 8,12, accessed June 24, 2020, https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/statistics/PDFs/AgExports2018-2019.pdf.

[56] “California Agricultural Statistics Review, 2018-2019,” 114.

Julia Ornelas-Higdon is an Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Channel Islands. Her research and teaching focuses on the intersections of race, agriculture, and labor histories. She received a Faculty Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the 2018-2019 academic year. Her forthcoming book, The Grapes of Conquest: Race, Labor, and the Industrialization of California Wine, 1769-1920, explores California’s 19th century wine industry as a site of conquest and racialization.

Reviews

Black California: A Review of West of Jim Crow

Kevin Waite

Mallie Robinson and her five children came to California in search of something better, only to find more of the same. When the Robinsons relocated from Cairo, Georgia to a family home on Pepper Street in Pasadena in 1922, their white neighbors greeted them with a flaming cross on their front lawn. Mallie discovered that most jobs were closed to Black women, aside from domestic work, while her children attended segregated schools. They were also barred from Pasadena’s public pool. The Plunge finally reopened to African Americans in 1930, but only for one day a week. Tuesday was known as “Negro Day,” when the Robinsons were allowed to swim alongside other people of color. That evening, the city drained the pool and filled it with fresh water for white swimmers on Wednesday. “Pasadena regarded us as intruders,” recalled one of Mallie Robinson’s children, a young man named Jackie. 

When it opened in 1914, African Americans and other people of color were only allowed to use the facilities at Brookside Pool one day a week. By the 1930s, when this photograph was taken, “Negro Day” had been renamed “International Day.” Courtesy of the Pasadena Public Library, Pasadena, California

Pasadena is now eager to claim Jackie Robinson, the sports legend who broke professional baseball’s color barrier, as one of its own. A community center and a city park are named for him, and two mammoth brass sculptures to Jackie and his brother Mack, an Olympic medalist, occupy a central courtyard across from Pasadena City Hall. Yet nowhere in in the city’s landscape are markers or acknowledgements to what Jackie and his family endured, when Pasadena largely closed itself to African Americans. The wealthiest city in the nation when Jackie Robinson was growing up, Pasadena was also one of the most rigorously segregated.

Pasadena was no outlier among California cities, as Lynn M. Hudson explains in her urgent new book, West of Jim Crow. Although officials in Pasadena policed the color line with particular vigilance, they represented a mere sliver of the segregationist apparatus in twentieth-century California. Hudson brilliantly illustrates how this vast network – including city and state officials, politicians, lawyers, policemen, and everyday citizens – turned California into a bastion of Jim Crow segregation and a hotspot for anti-Black violence. But she also documents the numerous ways in which African Americans fought back. From a certain perspective, the virulent force of white supremacy in California can be seen as a testament to the remarkable achievements and prominence of Black men and women in public life.

Myra Weiss wrote this pamphlet after the murder of her sister and brother-in-law and their two children. Weiss was a leader of the Socialist movement in California, and fought to keep the Shorts murder in the public eye. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, California.

California’s history of race-based segregation, of course, runs deep. Modern California – now one of the most outwardly liberal and cosmopolitan states in the nation – was built upon the forced relocation and dispossession of multiple ethnic groups. That history includes the seizure of vast amounts of land from Indigenous inhabitants and Mexican rancheros in the nineteenth century. And it includes the violent removal of Chinese immigrants from their communities across the state, as well as a sixty-year ban on migration from China, beginning in 1882. The hostility that Black Californians faced (and face still) belongs to this longer history.

Hudson’s canvas is broad – one of the many reasons her work will appeal to scholars, students, and general readers alike. West of Jim Crow spans the antebellum era up to the start of the Civil Rights movement, with a focus on the Black struggle for justice in the early to mid-twentieth century. Hudson ranges across space and time to cover a diverse range of moments in California’s Black history: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, the building of all-Black town in the Central Valley, the African American anti-lynching campaign, the rise of Ku Klux Klan in the Inland Empire, and the long fight against segregation in Pasadena.          

Colonel Allensworth and the eponymous town he founded with the artist Josephine Leavell Allensworth courtesy of the Smithsonian Learning Lab (Public Domain)

The Black struggle for racial justice in California is as old as the state itself. By the early 1850s, hundreds of enslaved African Americans had been forcibly imported to work the gold diggings around Sacramento. When many of them won their freedom later in the decade, they still faced a raft of discriminatory laws and practices. African Americans could not legally testify against whites in courts of law, nor could they marry across the color line. They were also routinely barred from streetcars and viciously parodied in San Francisco’s popular minstrel shows.

Against all odds, some early Black Californians prospered. Biddy Mason, a former slave from the plantation belt, personified hard-won fortune for this first generation of African American migrants. Born into slavery in Georgia, Mason was forcibly transported across the country, before she finally won freedom for herself and thirteen others in a Los Angeles courtroom in 1856. First as a nurse and midwife, then as a real estate entrepreneur, Mason built a business enterprise that made her one of the wealthiest women of color in the American West. Her success seeded a family fortune estimated at $300,000 by the turn of the century. At that point, Los Angeles had one of the highest proportions of Black homeowners of any city in the country. Yet as the Black community grew in numbers and affluence, it encountered mounting hostility and discrimination.

The story of racial struggle in California is largely one of self-empowered Black women like Mason. Generations of female leaders – Delilah Beasley, Josephine Allensworth, Carlotta Bass, Ruby Williams, and Edna Griffin, among many others – endowed their communities with strength and vision. Hudson, the author of an excellent biography on the San Francisco businesswoman, Mammy Pleasant, is well-equipped to recover these women’s contributions. She does so by placing them within the larger networks in which they operated, rather than rendering them as individual biographies. The effect is to highlight the cumulative power of Black women’s organizing. They never struggled alone.

Portrait of Delilah Beasley

Hudson locates influential Black women in places that historians typically overlook. Allensworth, the first and only all-Black municipality in California, was often advertised as a retirement community for Buffalo Soldiers. The town’s founder, Army veteran Allen Allensworth, embodied the masculine initiative that he hoped would propel his Central Valley settlement to prosperity. But it was the women of Allensworth who deserve much of the credit for the town’s survival in the 1910s and 20s. Some of the most successful businesses in Allensworth, including the hotel and boardinghouses, were owned and operated by women. Women also constituted the leadership of Allensworth’s church, and they taught generations of students in the schoolhouse. Their lessons in Black history proved transformative. “It was really the first time I’d ever heard nice things said about black people from a historical perspective,” one former student recalled. The moral was a simple but powerful one: “There was nothing inferior about me. I was pretty hard to stop from there on in” (115).

Scholars might quibble with certain aspects of the book, including its terminology. Hudson affixes the label “Jim Crow” to virtually all acts of anti-Black discrimination, beginning with the Reconstruction period. Most historians, however, generally date the start of the Jim Crow era to the late nineteenth century, when the former Confederate states adopted a series of laws to segregate and disenfranchise their Black populations. The term “Jim Crow Law” doesn’t appear in print until the 1890s. This isn’t to suggest that the racism African Americans faced in 1870s California was somehow less damaging. But Hudson would have been wise to explain why the term, which otherwise appears anachronistic, should have purchase for this earlier period. In doing so, she might have convincingly extended not only the geography of the Jim Crow era but the chronology as well. 

Minor critiques aside, West of Jim Crow is among the best introductions to Black California history yet written. It should be read alongside the seminal works of Albert Broussard, Quintard Taylor, Stacey Smith, Mark Brilliant, Lonnie Bunch, Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Douglas Flamming, Scott Kurashige, and Josh Sides. Because many of their books are more tightly focused – centered on particular cities or on a few decades of state history – Hudson’s ambitious and wide-ranging work will appeal especially to those looking for a primer on the subject. West of Jim Crow is an elegant synthesis that will doubtlessly stand the test of time.  

Jackie and Mack Robinson Memorial in Pasadena, California Courtesy of s.t.srinivasan

Jackie Robinson never forgot the trauma or humiliation of his segregated childhood in Pasadena. For Black families like his, the city’s affluence and upscale public services weren’t points of civic pride; they were reminders of what had been denied them. Even apparent victories for African Americans could be transformed into defeats. After a protracted court battle, Pasadena was finally forced to open its public pool to people of color by 1947. But rather than integrate, the city instead chose to drain its pool of funding, as it had been drained of water after “Negro Day” every week. If white families couldn’t have the pool to themselves, no one would.  The Plunge, once the most popular public pool in California, deteriorated. And Jim Crow lived on.

Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of American history at Durham University in the UK. His first book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in April 2021. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he co-directs a collaborative research grant on the life and times of Biddy Mason.

Poetry

Poems on Whiteness and the Attempted Coup

Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

Amy Shimshon-Santo

Shades of White

Capitol White
Bone White
Pale Smoke
Winter Mood
Victorian Pewter
Silver Charm
Oatmeal
Macaroon
Moth Gray
Closet Mix
Master Mix
Eggshell White
Powder
Paper White
White Dove
Snowfall White
Swiss Coffee
Parchment
White Flour
Seditious White
Chantilly Lace
Alabaster
Pure White
Cloud White
Moonlight White
Creamy
Extra White
Accessible Beige
Agreeable Gray
Alabaster
Diamond Muslin
Seed Pearl
Snow Bound
Oyster White
White Reflection
Extra White
Casa Blanca
Silk White
Antique White
Aged Paper
Lava White
White Duck
Natural Choice
Best White
Super White
Simply White
Extra White
Halo White


white supremacy’s identity crisis as slow-motion-crash

[found poem from cspan after the camp auschwitz insurrection
ransacked the capitol and the senate debated vote counting
and the idea of american democracy]

we brought this hell upon ourselves
it is a wrenching day

our words and actions have had consequences
of a very very negative nature

we ought to watch our words
and think about what they should mean

attacked by the enemy within
encouraged by the president-in-chief

everyone says “we the people”
if those were “the people,” we are in a lot of trouble

tally interrupted by violent insurrection
despite clear and insurmountable,  

concede already
the election of she and him

justice, must not fail
feast on the epiphany

Dr. Amy Shimshon-Santo is a poet-in-residence on Earth. Her interdisciplinary work connects the arts, education, and urbanism. She is the author Even the Milky Way Is Undocumented, a poetry collection available in print and audiobook nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Raindow Reads Award (Unsolicited Press, 2020). She has been recognized on the National Honor Roll for Service Learning. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net in Poetry (2018), a Pushcart Prize for Creative Nonfiction (2017), and appears in Prairie Schooner, ArtPlace AmericaTiltwest,Zócalo Public Square, Entropy, Rose Quartz Journal, Awkward Mermaid Press, Rag Queen Periodicals, Anti-Heroin Chic, Lady Liberty Lit, Full Blede, SAGE, UC Press, SUNY Press, Public!: A Journal of Imagining America, Teaching Artist Journal, Critical Planning Journal, and the Tiferet Journal. Her choreography and spoken word have been performed throughout the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Singapore in venues including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts in D.C.  Learn more at www.amyshimshon.com.

Copyright: © 2020 Amy Shimshon-Santo. 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/.

Interviews

Imagining a New America: An Interview with Luis J. Rodriguez

Luis J. Rodriguez is an L.A. cultural icon. A major figure in Chicanx literature, the former poet laureate of Los Angeles is perhaps best known for his 1993 book, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., which was one of the first autobiographical insider accounts of gang life in Los Angeles. Banned in cities throughout the state, it became required reading in L.A. Unified School District.

His new book is called, From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys, and Imaginings from a Native Xichanx Writer, published by Seven Stories Press. The book has received critical acclaim in the Los Angeles Times and was also featured in the LA Times Book Club in conversation with Times reporter Daniel Hernandez.

Earlier this Spring, Luis sat down with Boom’s Editor-at-Large, theologian Jason S. Sexton, in Sexton’s class at UCLA called Sociology of Crime. The wide-ranging conversation explored themes in the book and in contemporary California life related to crime, gangs, drugs, politics, and his own experience of life in Los Angeles and beyond. 

Boom: This class at UCLA is called Sociology of Crime, and we’ve been exploring how “the victim” is a primary model of elevated American identity, but you’ve also got to have the reverse… a perpetrator, a criminal, somebody who’s committed the crime, created the victim… both of those swirling around. We like these hard binaries. Historians often describe crime in two ways: as ordinary crimes… and extraordinary crimes, with extraordinary crimes being those big crimes that really reshape the criminal justice system in radical ways. I want to talk about an extraordinary crime not on the books, but it’s in your “I Love LA” poem. I want to talk about “Water,” and perhaps L.A.’s original sin: water theft and water rights. I wonder if you could talk about that crime.

Luis: The way capitalism is, there are legal ways of making money, which is not that different than illegal ways. They make laws first that allow certain things to happen, but then end up doing stuff like stealing, committing theft, even murdering people. But if it’s legal, it’s ok, it’s in the bounds of whatever society says. The shadow of that is that people do this by illegal means as well. You can kill people in this country if you are legally supposed to. If you’re not, and you don’t have that given legal power to kill somebody then you’ll likely end up in prison. This is why police were given the power of life and death over certain communities. They literally had that. And now people are waking up to it with Black Lives Matter. But it used to be where police could kill people and nobody could complain, nobody could do nothing. I lost four friends, unarmed, to police violence. There was no recourse. Police had the power to do that.

Boom: And we have a history, of course, of federally sanctioned slaughtering of Native Indians.

Luis: The dominance and genocide starts off with Native peoples. Whites in power took their land, and it got legalized. You could do homesteading and you could do all kinds of things. Then they start legalizing removals and all this stuff. They also legalized slavery. The way things were done, you could legally do anything to another human being with slavery. They were constitutionally declared less than human. Then when they [slaves] escaped, you had the Fugitive Slave Act, which got the whole country involved in capturing escaped slaves. In other words, this country legalized these terrible things. It’s “okay.” But it’s not okay if it’s not a part of the legal thing. So to me, crimes in the shadow are reflective of what I would call crimes by a social system. If they allow certain people to do certain things, like steal people’s lands, steal their minerals, steal their labor, steal their water, then the shadow side is reflective of something that is allowed. When you got power, you can do this; when you don’t have power, this is what you do—commit crimes as a way to survive. I’m not justifying any of it, I think human beings shouldn’t do none of that. But the point is, that’s what we end up doing.

Boom: You identify as a Native person. Do you see Los Angeles ever making amends for that original sin, original crime?

Luis: I don’t see it happening. I was really pleased that not that long ago we changed Columbus Day in L.A. and made it Indigenous People’s Day. We were one of the first cities to do this. I just found out Chicago just did that the other day. It’s recognizing that there was a terrible theft. And you can’t honor the man that helped open that door. You can’t.

Boom: William Mulholland.

Luis: He’s one of those guys. He played a big role in the water theft. One of the things about the Owens Valley is that it used to be mostly Native peoples and it was beautiful and green. The Native peoples had a way of thinking: you only take what you need, you always give back what you take, and you never take more than you need. So, it kept green. Developers came in and said, “These people are wasting the land.” So they got rid of the first peoples. They started taking over the water. Since then the Owens Valley became horrible, dry. It’s lost most of its greenery.

Photograph by Matt Gush, used with permission

Boom: They’re still taking it from the ground. So now I want to sort of push back on this a little bit because in your L.A. poem … in the last line, that it’s a city “lined with those majestic palm trees,” which take a lot of water, [bear] no fruit, they’re not indigenous, they’re imports, they provide no shade … and you feed into the myth.

Luis: Well, I feed into it because it is a myth. I feed into it because what people think about L.A. is kind of like the transplant of the palm trees, the transplant of people. The only ones who can’t say they’re transplanted are the indigenous people who have been pushed out and are made strangers in their own land. But what happened is that we become like palm trees. … I am feeding into the myth, but the myth is that this is … not really L.A. but that’s how we’ve become. There’s a layer of L.A. that’s all made up…that people have created on top of it. But one of the things I also want to point out and contrast to this is that palm trees are very sturdy. They do take up a lot of water. Every once in a while, winds can knock them down, but hardly. The winds, rains, everything coming through here; most palm trees stay up. There’s also something there I see [in] the people of L.A. There’s resilience in the people; I think there’s something deep in everyone that comes here, and that’s what I love about L.A. Even if you come from other parts in the world, you start getting a certain depth, a creative depth, in L.A. I find fascinating.

Boom: As we’re talking about L.A., you mention in another line in that poem that this is “still a one industry town.” I wonder if we could talk about and it was mentioned recently in some of the academy award winners’ [speeches], mentioning not only the whiteness of the academy, but also the neglect, and I think the Tarantino movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Brad Pitt highlights that with a lot of the stunt workers—the workers, I wonder if we could talk about the workers in that industry.

Luis: Well one of my sons, the one who went to prison, works for a Hollywood company that does sets. He’s a driver, and they bring stuff into wherever they’re filming. They’ve hired felons, and they’re doing good work; these men are working hard. And my son loves it. Somehow, he’s part of the Hollywood world. Now, he’s one of these workers that helps Hollywood get going; but nobody knows them. They’re not in front of the camera, not even behind the camera. They’re just the ones who get all the peripheral stuff needed for films to be made. So Hollywood to me is what makes L.A. the one industry town…; [but] let’s not forget this area is also the largest manufacturing center in the country. We have more manufacturing than Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh. And like those cities, we lost a lot of [good] industry in the ’80s. … In a sense people had jobs, made good money, and all this was pulled from other them. I was there when Goodyear, GM, Ford, Bethlehem… all the tire, auto, and steel plants went down, … when it all vanished. I used to work in some of these places. I worked as a welder, pipe-fitter, mechanic, in construction, and those industries were closing down, leaving. No jobs. We had one of the largest garment industries in the world, and it’s almost all gone, except for hole-in-the wall shops here and there. We were part of the rust belt and we weren’t in the rust belt. This is why by ’92 when the uprising happened, you could see how people lost their jobs, lost the ability to survive, and in turn how police got more money and became more oppressive. You can see the foundation for such an uprising because that’s the perfect storm that had developed.

Boom: Could we talk about your new book, From Our Land to Our Land, and how law, crime, and justice can better be conceived in this land.

Luis: Here’s what happened: slavery’s gone, but people are still treated badly. A lot of other things are gone, but things aren’t right. Native peoples have reservations but those are not the most beautiful places. A lot of injustice is still going on. They start building up the border, [which…] was a made-up thing.

Boom: We had a strong immigration bill in ’96 in this country, ten years after Reagan gave everyone amnesty.

Luis: What happened is they militarized the border, and an unfortunate aspect is you got Mexican tribal people and U.S. tribal people who have long ties, deep connections, family connections, that are adversely affected by this border. My mother’s family is from the Tarahumara tribe of Chihuahua, Mexico. They are known as some of the fastest runners in the world. They do marathons, and they do it with their tire-tread sandals. They don’t do it with Nike’s. The only ones they don’t beat are the Kenyans. The Tarahumaras have six canyons in southern Chihuahua. One of them is deeper than the Grand Canyon. I’ve been there, walked among them. Many live in caves. There were about 80,000 [people] living in caves when I visited. One of the few cave dweller [communities] in the world. They are Native peoples, don’t speak Spanish, they’re not Catholic, they’re Native. That tribe is related to the Pueblos, the Hopi, the Paiute, the California tribes. There’s a Uto-Azteca linguistic thing they’re all tied to. But the border comes and guess what? My mother who is Tarahumara has me born in El, Paso, [and] we live in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She went across the international bridge, and it’s all part of the Chihuahuan desert. El Paso, parts of New Mexico, and Chihuahua, have this link to the Chihuahua desert. Those people have been there for at least 10,000 years. But now with the border, we don’t belong anymore. Now we’re aliens, strangers, “illegals.” When I was born, we went from our land to our land. 10,000 years to me means more than the last 150 years, even though my mother and my dad and my whole family were treated like foreigners.

I have an issue with this country making us immigrants. We’re not immigrants, we’re migrants, like people all around the world. And I’m not against any other migrant from around the world, I’m just saying you gotta understand our ties to Native peoples and Native lands—that it is as deep as anyone’s. If you work with Native Americans, so many of them recognize that. There are pow wows that include Mexicans from Central Mexico. There’s Native American nations that now adopt Mexicans as members of their tribes. The Navajo have a Mexican clan. In other words, some indigenous people in the US are recognizing that Mexicans are not Spanish or Europeans. They are from this land. Even if we’re mixed in with Spanish, African, Asian, and other Europeans. Everybody’s mixed up in some fashion. Native Americans have some of the most mixed people. I’ve worked with some wonderful, amazing blue-eyed Indians. I worked with some amazing African-mixed Indian people. They’re still Native. So Mexicans have that. Then of course Mexico has the largest number of actual tribal people in the whole continent. The numbers are greater than any other country. Per capita, Guatemala and Peru might have more indigenous people, but Mexico has the largest number of them.

Photograph by Matt Gush, used with permission

Boom: This is fascinating, and especially significant for a key theme in this class about how crime is conceived culturally, especially when you have an imposition of laws that are meant to reflect the culture, but the question is “which culture?” When people talk about criminal justice reform, how does that even happen in relationship to who have been perceived as criminals?

Luis: The whole book is really a vision for a new country. I really want to imagine a new America. I have to. I can’t just accept everything that America’s become to this day. Now people have said, “Well why don’t you go to another country?” I’ve heard this a lot of times. I don’t have to go anywhere else—this is my land. This is my country, and I have a lot to say about it. I’m not going to go anyplace else to do that. I’m going to do it here. Because I have these indigenous ties… I’m not going anywhere, I’m staying here. Yes, I have ties to Mexico, and I’m very concerned with what happens in Mexico, but I’m really concerned with what happens in the United States. So I feel there has to be a new imagination. And the imagination has to be more encompassing. Prison is one of the worst things we’ve ever created as a country. It does not work. It does not do what it’s supposed to do; … [it] actually does the opposite. Since they started building more prisons, more crime has been the result. The gangs in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s expanded because of prisons. There were fifteen prisons with 15,000 prisoners in the early ‘70s. Since that time, California built up to 34 prisons with upwards of [appx.] 175,000 incarcerated men and women. California gangs are spread out to other parts of the world. You got L.A. gangs all over Central America, in Mexico, and other countries. Prisons made it worse for everybody, [not] any better.

You don’t punish crime away. It doesn’t work to punish people, especially when they’re adults—kids, even worse—it doesn’t work that way. If you commit a crime, if you’re troubled, if you need a lot of help, you should have a lot of resources at your disposal. You should be given tools, knowledge, connections, whatever you need to get through it. That’s not the way it presently works, and I know because I’ve been active in this area for decades. For forty years I’ve been going to prisons—teaching, reading poetry, doing healing circles. One thing you should know about the California prison system, it’s filled with almost eighty percent people of color, and we’re not near that [number] in the state’s total population. The largest single group [in prison] is Chicano, about forty percent, which is closer to the state’s population. African Americans are the most disproportionate because they’re about thirty to thirty-five percent in prison, when their population numbers are like sixteen percent. Whites and Asians… are far less than their [statewide] populations. So something wrong is going on here. That’s what people have to look at, what is going on, and why does the prison system reflect that?

I teach at the only California state prison in Los Angeles County, in Lancaster, every Monday. I go into two high-security yards. One of them is general population. Before I got there thirteen years ago, there were riots, there were lockdowns, [and] all these terrible things. We started doing programming. I was one of the first people to come into the general population yard to do programming at Lancaster. This was in 2016. Now there’s a lot of programming. The violence has gone down. The drug use has gone down. It’s not perfect. Every once in a while, things happen, so I’m not saying that everything is great. They’re doing much better; they really are better. Even the guards have recognized it. Before, [the guards] were my biggest problem. They would say, “why do you come here, why do you bother?” Now they’re friendly to me: “I’m glad you’re here.” They help me out. It’s changed, and that to me is what’s important. Can we find, can we imagine a way to deal with human beings [that] does [not] mean locking them up, putting them away, throwing away the key, and just making them worse than when they came in?

Boom: But you also … actually took some of this vision in a political direction. Running for governor, you got a lot of votes; you would have been the first Mexican governor that we’ve ever had.

Luis: Probably not since the 1800s.

Boom: And certainly before we became an American state in 1850. I wonder if we could talk about politics, and politics not just related to California and this vision. I Iove what you’re describing and Kevin Starr would often talk similarly, and he would triangulate that he lived in San Francisco, but worked in Sacramento as State Librarian, and then taught at USC. In his books he would sign, “Kevin Starr—San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles.” People would ask him “well where do you live?” And he would say, “I live in a city called California.” It was a beautiful vision. And some of that, I think you pick up as well with different ways that we can better make life here, that’s more meaningful, related to work, related to education, resources. We’re not all at the same place socioeconomically. So how can we be more just?

Luis: I do not believe that Republicans or Democrats have much imagination. I find them to be stuck, both parties. I think all political parties in this country, and probably around the world, are in crisis. And I think all religions as well, which is not a bad thing necessarily because the essence of all of them begins to rise up while everything else falls to the side. … Everything’s in crisis for a reason. My campaign was called, “Imagine a New California.” I couldn’t do a Democratic or Republican thing. I had to imagine a whole new way to go. I’m not saying there are not good things in either party, but I have to imagine a new way that can take the best of all of them and create a new path. With no money. Governor Brown had twenty million dollars at the primary and there were fifteen candidates running at the time. I didn’t have [much] money, but I went up and down the state a dozen times, talked to a lot of people. I ended up getting fifth out of fifteen people in the primary elections, and first among all the Independents and third-party people. I also beat Governor Brown in border precincts and was second to him in San Francisco. He wasn’t the worst governor in the world, but he was, again, not very imaginative, I felt. But I’ll tell you one thing that happened, I got like 70,000 votes. You’re not going to win nothing in California with 70,000 votes, but that’s something considering that 70,000 people thought I was worth voting for. And maybe it was my name, who knows how they do it. The thing that got to me was that Brown actually picked up some of my issues after the primaries. He starts talking about poverty when he never used to. He started to talk about prison reform in a different way. And he was doing something he wasn’t doing before: he was commuting a lot of guys that had been in prison, some life without parole, but were doing very good because of programming. People were amazed that he was taking on these issues differently than he had before. I think, again maybe not, I think it had to do with what I was doing, with what I was saying.

Boom: And you do vote, you’re still involved?

Luis: I’m still involved. I still vote.

Boom: I wonder if we could take it back to talk about some laws recently passed related to criminal justice reform, which never addressed the issue of violent crime. It’s like, “you could have a commuted sentence if you didn’t do a violent crime.” But that relates to something of a preconceived understanding of, at least at some point, how a checks and balance might be provided with violent crime.

Luis: I think this looking at crime differently really started in Chicago, and then came over to New York and other cities eventually, when Jane Addams expressed the idea that you can’t just put these people away. She was putting forward, creating settlement houses primarily for the communities of white immigrants that were getting into a lot of trouble. These white immigrants—Irish, German, Italians, Eastern Europeans—were getting into a lot of trouble in their neighborhoods. They were poor, but were able to rise up because there were always Black people they can say were lower than them. The Irish were treated very badly, but they were never treated as badly as Black people. Some of them joined with the anti-Black stuff, some didn’t, but the point being: the reformers wanted to say, “Can we help these people?” The industrial world was creating crime. So they figured, “Okay these aren’t really criminals in the sense that they are just bad people; they’re bad people because the jobs aren’t there.” They gotta eat. So settlement houses, and the idea that maybe we don’t have to imprison these people as much as give them a leg up.

It was evident when there were white immigrants suffering, they were prepared to help. Now, in the twentieth century when crime involved more people of color, all of a sudden those ideas went out the door. “Let’s just put them away. They ain’t no good. They’re never going to get it. You got to put them away for a long long time.” This started to get really bad in the last 40 years, especially in the ’90s. Even Democrats fell into this. When kids were being tried as adults, they were given 135 years, they were just fourteen to sixteen years old, given a lot of years because they were already going back to the whole idea that you can’t change anything. And they weren’t justifying it by looking at the economy, they were just saying, “something’s wrong with these people, put them away.” So they were creating monsters, as I say in my book. They were monsters of our own making. We created these monsters, and now we don’t know what to do except say, “they’re monsters.”

I go to the prison now … there are guys serving their whole lives in prison who would never commit a crime again. I do thirteen-to-fifteen-week classes, so every thirteen to fifteen weeks I have a new group of guys. In the B yard, which is the general population yard, there’s about thirty guys—tattooed-faced, all buff, even though there’s no weights to work out with. They’d scare the heck out of anybody. But I do this regularly, I work with them, and some of them, over a course of time, you find out they are quite decent and complex human beings. Many of these guys are murderers, most of them have life without possibility of parole sentences. Some have been doing thirty to forty years already, some former gang members but I am working with them now, and I find a lot of decency, a lot of people that want to make some changes. Some of them are never getting out and they still want to make deep changes.

Jason S. Sexton is Visiting Research Scholar at UCLA’s California Center for Sustainable Communities, editor of Theology and California: Theological Refractions on California’s Culture (Routledge) and Editor-at Large of Boom California.

Luis J. Rodriguez is the former poet laureate of Los Angeles, and his most recent book is called, From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys, and Imaginings from a Native Xicanx Writer, published by Seven Stories Press

Copyright: © 2020 Luis J. Rodriguez and Jason S. Sexton. 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/

Reviews

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

Adrián Félix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

Reviews

The Machete of Memory: Roberto Lovato’s Memoir Unforgetting

Steven Osuna

It has been 13 years since I first traveled to El Salvador. My father, Ramon, left his homeland of El Salvador for the U.S. in the late 1970s. Ramon was always in and out of my life. The last time I saw my father was in 2004. By the time I took this trip, I had completely lost contact with him. This trip to El Salvador was my way to connect with Ramon’s home country without having a relationship with him. It was my way of searching for an opaque past.

While in El Salvador, I learned the significance of “memoria histórica” (historical memory). To know history, is to know oneself. As Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, once said: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.”[1] My yearning to trace my history would not bring me closer to Ramon, but it would help me understand him and myself. It permanently informed my political consciousness and commitments, and the love I have for El Salvador.

In Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins, 2020), scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador. While mainstream media, law enforcement, and U.S. presidents point toward gangs such as MS13 as the culprit of Central America’s social problems, Lovato complicates this claim. Unforgetting is an urgent demand to sit with the beauty and messiness in our lives, our traumas, and the historical moments that shape our present and possibly our futures.

This morning, my neighbor was gardening. His tool of choice? The machete he brought back from visiting his family in El Salvador. As I heard him hacking away at the branches of a tree, I was reminded of the first words in Lovato’s memoir: “The machete of memory can cut swiftly or slowly.”[2] The machete, a cultural reference to El Salvador for many of us, is the tool of choice Lovato uses to conjure the memories that have shaped him, his family and all Salvadorans. With this machete, Lovato cuts and slices through over 80 years of Salvadoran history. Rather than a simple, linear narrative beginning in the past and ending in the present, Lovato travels through distinct instances of his father’s life, his own life, and the historical events that connect towns and cities in El Salvador to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Karnes County, Texas. The machete of memory, Lovato reminds us, is versatile. It can summon pain, love, and nostalgia. The memories shared by Lovato in his memoir invite us to feel a collage of emotions while grounding us in their material conditions.

The Lovato Family on Folsom Street in the San Francisco Mission District. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

“My story is apocalyptic in the original sense of the term in Greek: apokaluptō…to uncover, lay open what has been veiled or covered up.”[3] Like a finely made braid, Lovato interlaces his family’s history with the history of El Salvador. Through the Matanza of 1932, the migrations of Salvadorans to Mexico and to the U.S., the revolutionary struggles of the 1980s, the criminalization of youth, and the caging of Salvadoran refugees during the Obama and Trump administrations, Lovato and his family are always present. Rather than bystanders, Lovato shows how he, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his aunts, and cousins, were all active agents in the making of El Salvador and the Mission District of San Francisco. Through memoria histórica, Lovato shares his journey of uncovering his father’s intimate connection to the 1932 massacre of over 30,000 indigenous people and communists. The moment his father shares his testimonio is one of the most powerful images in the memoir: “At that moment, my eight-eight-year-old father became the nine-year-old boy who’d witnessed one of the worst massacres in the history of the Americas.”[4]

Roberto Lovato in Chalantenango, El Salvador, 1991. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

If you have followed Lovato’s journalism and activism throughout the years, you know he does not shy away from showing us his rage. “Rage is my vocation,” he states.[5] By way of Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez’s lyrics in “Días y Flores,” we learn the origins of Lovato’s rage and how it shifted from his family, El Salvador, and himself to U.S. empire. Through Lovato’s intimate and comradely relationship with a Salvadoran revolutionary named G, we are taken through scenes of U.S. imperialism in El Salvador, its support of death squads, and the revolutionary struggles for Salvadoran dignity during the 1980s civil war. Revolution is a major theme in Lovato’s memoir. Although the word revolution might be outdated for some, Lovato reminds us its ideals and necessity live on. 

Instead of reifying gang violence in El Salvador, Lovato urges us to think deeply and try to understand what turns kids into violent, even murderous gang members while also holding space for the child victims of this violence, what he calls a “double helix of death,” that condemns many in El Salvador.[6] In many scenes of the memoir, Lovato forces us to reckon with a whirlwind of emotions that does not explain away the violence, but rather helps us understand it. Through his own investigations, Lovato argues the violence we often hear about through the corporate media “is no small part, an expression of forgotten American violence.”[7] He reminds us that the most destructive agents in El Salvador are not the youth gangs, but the gangsters in suits who are “protected by even more violent gangsters in military uniforms.”[8]

According to Central American Studies scholar Ester E. Hernández, “the process of transmitting cultural memory brings to light the history of diaspora.”[9] Through her use of the concept “working memory,” Hernández shows how U.S.-based Central Americans use film, murals, and performances to revisit complex and contradictory narratives of war, migration, and resistance.[10] Adding to this working memory and history of the Salvadoran diaspora, Lovato’s Unforgetting contributes to U.S.-based Central American cultural production, activism, and the growing field of Central American Studies. It is part and parcel of a growing tradition of U.S.-based Central Americans writing their own radical histories of U.S. empire. This memoir is an ideal text for undergraduate courses and people interested in Salvadoran history.  

Roberto Lovato at the Instituto de Medicina Legal, 2015. Courtesy of Roberto Lovato

Unforgetting is an invitation, or more like a demand, to remember the violence of settler colonialism, anti-communism, and imperialist interventions in El Salvador. Simultaneously, it is a refusal to forget the love, hope, agency, and struggles of Salvadorans and Central Americans. It is a timely memoir that should be studied on your own or with a study group. As we continue to hear, see, and organize against the caging, raiding, and deporting of our people, let us remember Lovato’s call to action. We must never forget the roots causes of the trauma, forced displacement, and criminalization. We must never forget the dignity of our people. Salvadorans have a rich history. Lovato urges others to read, listen, and learn from them.


Notes

[1] Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 2nd ed. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffret Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1999, 324.

[2] Lovato, Roberto. Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. New York: Harper Collins, 2020, xvii

[3] Ibid, 300.

[4] Ibid, 275.

[5] Ibid, 190.

[6] Ibid, 47.

[7] Ibid, 304.

[8] Ibid, 57.

[9] Hernández, Ester E. “Remembering Through Cultural Interventions: Mapping Central Americans in L.A. Public Space,” in U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance. Edited by Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017, 144.

[10] Ibid, 144. 

Steven Osuna is an educator, researcher, and activist based in Los Angeles. He is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. 

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

Articles

The “Lost Cause” Goes West: Confederate Culture and Civil War Memory in California

This essay was originally published in California History, Vol 97, No. 1

Kevin Waite

Where the monument once stood, only a gentle divot in the earth remains. Visitors to Hollywood Forever Cemetery today could easily pass over the spot without realizing that, for the better part a century, this quiet corner of Los Angeles housed a six-foot granite tribute to the dead soldiers of the Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) erected the monument in 1925 to honor their rebel ancestors, buried in the surrounding cemetery plot. It was the first of its kind anywhere in the Far West. And it remained the most significant Confederate marker in California until it was removed from the cemetery grounds in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. That rally—which began with a tiki-torch-lit vigil around a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee and ended in the murder of one of the counterprotesters—sparked a national backlash against Confederate iconography and the history it represents.[1] In the weeks that followed, numerous Confederate monuments across the country came down. If only fleetingly, California played an important part in this reckoning with Civil War memory and the legacies of American slavery.

The Hollywood memorial was not the only one of its kind in California. In fact, no other state beyond the South contained as many monuments, markers, and place-names honoring the Confederate States of America (1861–1865) and its soldiers.[2] In addition to the Hollywood Forever memorial, Californians paid homage to the Confederacy with a large granite pillar in Orange County’s Santa Ana Cemetery; schools in San Diego and Long Beach named for Robert E. Lee; the township of Confederate Corners in Monterey County; mountaintops in the Sierra Nevada range commemorating Confederate president Jefferson Davis and General George E. Picket; the Robert E. Lee redwood in Kings Canyon National Park, plus three other large trees that bear the rebel general’s name; a scenic network of rock formations near Lone Pine named for the CSS Alabama, one of the Confederacy’s most feared warships; a small monument to Robert S. Garnett, the first rebel general killed in the Civil War; and five markers to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.[3] Many of the monuments were removed or renamed following events in Charlottesville. But for much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, they stood as totems to the slave South in the American West.

Why did a free state, far beyond the major military theaters of the Civil War, host such a collection of rebel monuments and memorials? The answer lies partly in the Golden State’s long-standing affinity for the Old South. That transregional relationship dates back much further than 1925, when the first of these monuments appeared in California. Although admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850 and populated primarily by migrants from northern states and territories, California was coopted by southern-born politicians. They occupied a majority of California’s high offices and steered the state along a conspicuously proslavery path in the final decade before the Civil War. Many of these leaders faded from the scene after slave emancipation in 1865. But those who replaced them nurtured a nostalgia for the plantation South and hostility toward the progressive, Republican policies of Reconstruction. Due to their efforts, California became the only free state that refused to ratify both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—the measures that, respectively, extended citizenship rights to most natural-born Americans and granted suffrage to black men.[4]

In the coming decades, thousands of migrants from the former Confederate states arrived in California, strengthening the bonds between South and West. Although they represented a dwindling proportion of the state’s overall population, these migrants wielded an outsized cultural influence in the West.[5] By the turn of the century, they had formed numerous chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the UDC. As California’s Union veterans and their ancestors celebrated the preservation of the United States, these Confederate memorial associations crafted an alternate memory of the conflict. Through various commemorative activities, they advanced a revisionist interpretation of the Civil War known as the “Lost Cause.”

The Lost Cause is almost as old as the Civil War itself. The Southern partisan Edward Pollard laid out some of its major themes in his 1866 work of the same name.[6] Over the coming decades, writers, orators, artists, filmmakers, and memorial associations would build upon the major themes of the Lost Cause, as they sought to craft a sympathetic public memory of the war and imbue their rebellion with romance and dignity. Each Lost Cause warrior celebrated a slightly different aspect of the Confederate past but, over time, most came to embrace a common set of arguments. They denied the central role of slavery in triggering secession; they blamed the war on abolitionists in the North, rather than fire-eaters in the South; they exalted the gallantry of the common Confederate soldier and the virtues of their commanders; they dismissed the Union victory as a nearly inevitable consequence of superior numbers and resources; and they looked back nostalgically on the era of plantation slavery. The Lost Cause lives on in hundreds of Confederate markers and memorials across the country.[7]

Despite a vast literature on the origins, evolution, and enduring influence of the Lost Cause, little has been written on how this ideology impacted the political culture and physical space of the American West.[8] Historians have ably described California’s proslavery origins as well as its postwar record of white supremacy.[9] But how those politics played out through a decades-long struggle over historical memory within the state is only dimly understood. By surveying the Confederate landscape of California, this essay attempts to address that historical lacuna. As an introduction to the subject, rather than a detailed analysis of the Lost Cause in the American West, it also suggests avenues for further research. Hidden in plain sight for generations, the Confederate memorials of California have an important history to tell. Together, they testify to the continental reach of the Lost Cause.

The contest over Civil War memory and the Western landscape was always that—a contest. To carry the Lost Cause into California required enormous effort and organization from dozens of Confederate memorial associations. Monuments, after all, would not dedicate themselves. And while most Californians remained ignorant of the rebel markers that dotted their state, Confederate apologists rarely had an easy time of it. They faced funding shortfalls and preoccupied local governments. Even a small group of outraged Union veterans could spell doom for a Confederate marker, as they did for an obelisk honoring Jefferson Davis, erected in San Diego in 1926. Meanwhile, Union memorial organizations dedicated monuments and renamed geographic sites in California at an even faster rate than their Confederate counterparts. Whether cast in bronze, carved in stone, or paved in asphalt, these memorials raised a thorny set of questions: Who belongs in the American pantheon? Who deserves a place on the American map? And, crucially, who does not? Recently, these questions have prompted dramatic and sometimes violent responses in the public spaces of the South. But for nearly a century, the struggle over Civil War memory has been quietly brewing in the infrastructure, graveyards, and natural landscape of the West as well.

Confederate Culture Takes Root

Shortly after the war, and decades before any permanent monument to the Confederacy was erected in California, the language of the Lost Cause migrated west. It made an early appearance in the pages of the San Francisco Examiner, the leading Democratic newspaper in the state. The paper’s editor, Benjamin Franklin Washington, came by his Southern sympathies naturally. Born on a Virginia plantation in 1820, Washington could trace his family lineage to the nation’s first president. He retained his allegiance to the slaveholding class even after moving to California in 1849. There, he rose to prominence within the Democratic Party and assumed the editorship of the Examiner in 1865. Washington filled his columns with invective against Republicans in Congress, federal Reconstruction, and black enfranchisement. He also articulated some of the major tenets of an emerging Lost Cause ideology. Unlike many other proponents of the Lost Cause, Washington was not himself a veteran of the war. His writings, therefore, focused less on military themes than on the ills afflicting the South in the immediate postwar years. But collectively, his columns amounted to perhaps the most forceful apologia for the Old South anywhere in the postbellum West.[10]

As slavery’s staunchest postmortem defender in California, Washington looked on the emancipated South with a shudder and upon its antebellum days with longing. Slavery, he wrote shortly after the war, was the “negro birthright.” The institution, he continued, granted each black person in the South “the protecting care and guardianship of his master who provided for all his wants, and made him a useful member of the community.” Republicans—whom he lambasted as “Abolitionists, Free Lovers, and the rag-tag-and-bobtail of the entire fanatical tribe of New England”—had “robbed” blacks of these protections, throwing the South into disarray.[11] In Washington’s view, African-descended people were “not only totally incapable of self-government, but wholly unfit to be free.”[12] His frequent paeans to human bondage led the San Francisco Elevator, one of California’s African American newspapers, to conclude that Washington “would doubtless like to see the old era reestablished, and slavery triumphant over the land.”[13]

Washington’s nostalgia extended to the leaders of the Old South and soldiers of the Confederacy. He penned tributes to deceased slaveholding luminaries such as John C. Calhoun and defended Jefferson Davis, calling his trial for treason a “shameful, disgraceful and contemptible farce.”[14] Like many other Confederate apologists, Washington blamed Northern abolitionists, rather than Southern rebels, for the outbreak of the war. “We believe now, and always shall believe,” he wrote in 1869, “that the recent war was unnecessary, uncalled for, and wicked in its inception.”[15] As for the white Southerners who waged that war, Washington had only praise. “No men ever embarked in a cause with a more thorough conviction of right and justice than did they,” he argued. “No men conscious of wrong could ever have made the heroic and prolonged resistance against such overwhelming odds.”[16] Washington directly echoed the sentiments of Robert E. Lee’s so-called farewell address of April 1865, which anticipated one of the major themes—Southern courage versus sheer Northern numbers—of the Lost Cause.[17]

While politicos like Washington gave voice to certain tenets of the Lost Cause in the immediate postwar years, the mythology of the Old South reached full flower within California only in the early twentieth century. As was true in the South, women played the leading role in California’s Confederate renaissance. They did so primarily through the UDC, a heredity organization dedicated to commemorating the Southern war effort and its soldiers. Members of the UDC perpetuated this memory through a number of initiatives. They hosted gatherings for rebel veterans; sponsored school textbooks that put a Southern spin on the Civil War; and erected memorials to the leaders and common soldiers of the Confederacy. Riffing on a common Lost Cause trope, the UDC said that its mission was to “tell of the glorious fight against the greatest odds a nation ever faced, that their hallowed memory should never die.”[18] The first chapter was founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1894, but within just a few years the UDC had gone continental.

By the turn of the century, several UDC chapters had formed in California, including the Jefferson Davis Chapter (1899), the Emma Sansome Chapter (1899), and the Stonewall Jackson Chapter (1901). Like their counterparts in the South, California’s Daughters dedicated themselves to the care of Confederate veterans, a number of whom had relocated to the Pacific Coast after the war, and to commemorating their military service. Although particularly active in Southern California, the UDC’s Pacific network ran the length of the state. In fact, during this period, no other part of the country beyond the former slaveholding regions contained as many chapters as California.[19]

Despite their prominence, these western chapters have received little attention from academic historians. Without a more extensive study of the origins of the UDC in California, the broader history of the Lost Cause and Civil War memory in the American West will remain incomplete. Fortunately, future scholars have several important archives available to them. Extensive paper collections related to these early California chapters can be found in major repositories across the state, including the University of the Pacific; campuses of the University of California at Davis and Santa Barbara; and California State University, Fullerton.[20] Through these records, historians might explore how the Lost Cause was manifested, not only in the physical landscape, but in popular culture, in school curricula, and in the political orientation of the American West.

The UDC and related Confederate associations played a particularly active role in the cultural life of Los Angeles County. Their prominence within the community was the product of both postwar migration and the state’s deep antebellum roots. Beginning with the gold rush, Southern California attracted a disproportionate share of migrants from the slave states. The major overland road that ran westward from the American South ended in Los Angeles. And while some of these migrants continued north into the gold diggings around Sacramento, a number of them settled in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas, where they soon constituted a majority of the U.S.-born population of the county. These migrants wed the region’s political fortunes to the Democratic Party and the slave South, even after California entered the Union as a free state in 1850. At the helm of the city’s political machine sat Joseph Lancaster Brent, a Maryland native and future Confederate general. According to one contemporary observer, Brent carried antebellum Los Angeles in “his vest pocket.”[21] In concert with the large Mexican-born population of the county, Brent preserved a monopoly on power for the Chivalry, the proslavery wing of California’s Democratic Party.[22]

When war erupted between North and South in 1861, a wave of secessionist scares swept across the West. Los Angeles was the beating heart of disunionism in California. Hundreds of rebel sympathizers, including Brent himself, fled Southern California to enlist in the Confederate Army. Among those in the exodus were the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles, a group of eighty secessionists who would become the only organized militia from a free state to fight under a Confederate banner.[23] Other rebel sympathizers stayed put in Southern California, where they constituted a Confederate “fifth column” within U.S. territory. As U.S. authorities attempted to preserve their fragile command over the region, these California rebels demonstrated their disloyalty in a number of ways, from unfurling the Confederate flag in public spaces, to hurrahing Jefferson Davis and his generals, to openly brawling with federal soldiers. As one of Southern California’s rare Unionists recalled in his memoirs, “The leading men of the county were for the Jeff Davis government first, last and all the time.”[24] The threat became so dire that Union officials established a large military garrison outside Los Angeles to prevent the region from slipping into rebel hands. Although California, on the whole, remained loyal to the United States, secessionists in the southern counties presented a near-constant threat.[25]

Given its long proslavery history and enduring Southern connections, Los Angeles was a fitting location for the West’s first major Confederate memorial. In 1925, the Confederate Monument Association of Los Angeles, in conjunction with the UDC, erected a six-foot granite structure in Hollywood Cemetery. It was a tribute to the wartime services of several dozen Confederate veterans who settled in the region after the war and took their final rest under Southern California soil.[26] In anticipation of the monument’s unveiling, California chapters of the UDC hosted several large gatherings. That spring in Pasadena, for instance, a hundred Southern women, “all bubbling with typical Southern hospitality,” hosted the president of the UDC, who entertained the crowd with “a number of southern stories in the negro dialect,” according to the Los Angeles Times.[27] The UDC and the Confederate Monument Association of Los Angeles would eventually purchase seventy-five plots around the monument for soldiers and their families. For years to come, the region’s memorial associations decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers and hosted commemorative gatherings on the cemetery plot.[28]

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Erected in 1925, this memorial to Confederate soldiers “who have died or may die on the Pacific coast” stood in Hollywood Forever Cemetery until 2017. It was removed shortly after the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville that August. Photo courtesy of Kevin Waite

Southern California’s Daughters tended to the living as well as the dead. In 1929, the UDC established Dixie Manor, the first and only Confederate veterans’ rest home beyond the former slave states and territories.[29] Located outside Los Angeles in leafy San Gabriel, Dixie Manor was a large, stately structure, leased from the former chief justice of the California Supreme Court and the secretary of the Navy under President Calvin Coolidge. By February of that year, the first veterans had moved in. In April, some five hundred guests gathered for the dedication of the home. Over the next seven years, twenty-one former rebels would pass through the home before they died, most of them bound for the Confederate section of Hollywood Cemetery.[30]

Although not a particularly large operation, it was an expensive one, especially in the midst of a global economic meltdown. Dixie Manor ran on contributions from UDC chapters across the state, whose funds covered food, medical care, allowances for residents, salaries for workers, upkeep for the home, and the cost of frequent celebrations. Hundreds of visitors came to the home each year to pay tribute to the last rebels of the West and, in the process, to perpetuate the memory of the Lost Cause. In 1936, the five remaining veterans died and Dixie Manor was closed.[31]

Jefferson Davis in California

Jefferson Davis came to California with the automobile. The former Confederate president never set foot in the state during his lifetime, but he enjoyed a posthumous presence there in the form of a vast road system named in his honor. Like so many other Lost Cause initiatives, the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway was the brainchild of the UDC. Beginning in 1913, UDC members began lobbying to put their old president on the American map. They conceived of the Davis road as a rival to the recently announced Lincoln Highway from New York to San Francisco, which had been bankrolled by Yankee capitalists. Rather than building new roads, members of the UDC instead threw their collective energy into renaming already-existing auto trails. By designating enough individual highways in Davis’s honor, they hoped to stitch together a continental thoroughfare of Confederate memory. Over the coming decades, the UDC lobbied state governments, erected markers, and mapped out a road system to run the length of the country.[32]

Although Davis would not live to see the age of the automobile, the motorway was a fitting tribute for a man who had championed major transportation projects during his lifetime. As secretary of war and a U.S. senator in the 1850s, Davis spearheaded a decade-long campaign for the nation’s first transcontinental railway. The railroad of his fantasies was to run from the slave states all the way to the Pacific Coast, thereby bringing the South and West into a political and commercial embrace—and perhaps extending the institution of slavery across the American continent. Davis took a particular interest in California, the proposed terminus of his railroad, which he hoped to tether to the slave South with a bond of iron.[33]

Debates over the proposed railway’s route became deeply entangled in the controversy over slavery and the American West. Critics of Davis’s preferred route recognized its ominous potential and dubbed it the “great slavery road.”[34] In the rancorous political atmosphere of the 1850s, Northern politicians closed rank against virtually all proposed southern routes, while Southern leaders struck down numerous bills for northern lines. The result was political quagmire. Only with the secession of eleven slaveholding states in 1861 could plans for a Pacific railroad begin again in earnest. Congress swiftly capitalized on the Southern rebellion and the decisive Republican majority that it produced by passing the Pacific Railroad Act for a line between Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Sacramento. Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law in July 1862.[35] Davis never got his great slavery road.

Yet Davis’s nineteenth-century vision received a twentieth-century reboot in the extensive road system that bears his name. The end result, while not the continuous highway its architects initially envisioned, was a monumental achievement nonetheless. To this day, stretches of the Davis Highway run for hundreds of miles through the South, while dozens of markers to the old rebel can be found across the West, including California. Taken together, the Jefferson Davis Highway is the largest Confederate monument in the country, and it will likely remain the most indelible homage to the Lost Cause.[36]

The UDC erected the first California marker to the Davis Highway in San Diego in 1926. The Daughters thumbed their collective noses at the Union by placing a large stone obelisk dedicated to Davis in Horton Plaza, directly across from the U.S. Grant Hotel, which had been built by the war hero’s son. W. Jefferson Davis, a local attorney and distant relative of the Confederate president, helped to underwrite the cost of the monument. Almost immediately, Union veterans began protesting the presence of this rebel tribute in one of San Diego’s premier locations, and they succeeded in having it carted off later that year. But three decades later, the Confederate South rose again in San Diego, when local members of the UDC reinstalled a Davis Highway marker in Horton Plaza. The new plaque celebrated San Diego as the “Pacific terminus” of the Davis Highway.[37] The marker doubled as a thinly veiled critique of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark school desegregation case recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.[38]

Four other Davis Highway markers remain, scattered across the state. One of them, now located in a Bakersfield museum, pays tribute to Davis’s antebellum efforts on behalf of infrastructural development, albeit with a touch of hyperbole. Erected in 1942 by the Mildred Lee Chapter of the UDC, the monument salutes Davis as “The Father of National Highways.” That honorific is a reference to his work, as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, in overseeing four major transcontinental railroad surveys in 1853–1854. Unsurprisingly, the marker fails to mention that Davis exploited his position in an attempt to extend slavery westward. In his official report, Davis formally endorsed the southernmost of these routes, despite numerous obstacles, while dismissing all routes across free soil as untenable.[39] This Davis monument originally stood in the Central Valley north of Los Angeles, along U.S. 99, until the highway was modernized in the 1960s, at which point the marker was moved to the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield. Another marker to the Davis Highway was erected nearby in 1956 but has since been removed to Fort Tejon State Park. Two other Davis Highway markers currently sit in Hornbrook and Winterhaven, at opposite ends of the state.[40]

No building materials were necessary for some of the grandest California tributes to Davis and his rebel associates. Confederate veterans and members of the UDC simply used the state’s majestic natural landscape to celebrate their old cause. Spanning roughly thirty thousand acres, a scenic range of rock formations known as the Alabama Hills honors one of the Confederacy’s greatest warships. The area, near Lone Pine, was named for the CSS Alabama by Southern sympathizers in the 1860s. The mountains of California also carry the names of rebel commanders. When a number of Confederate veterans settled in Alpine County after the war, they named a nearby peak after their former president. Another mountaintop in the same range commemorates General George E. Pickett, who ordered the bloody, failed charge at Gettysburg in July 1863.[41]

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The Alabama Hills, at the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountain range near Lone Pine, were named for the Confederate warship CSS Alabama.
Photo courtesy of Bobak Ha’Eri.

Of all the Confederate markers in California, trees named for Robert E. Lee are perhaps the best known and most frequently visited. There are four in total, including the fifth-largest tree in the world (the twelfth-largest excluding reiterations and branches), located in Kings Canyon National Park. It was named by a former Confederate officer in 1875. Other sequoias bearing Lee’s name can be found in Yosemite National Park, Giant Sequoia National Monument, and Sequoia National Park. The UDC formally dedicated the “General Lee” Sequoia with a commemorative gathering in 1937. A handful of California redwoods are named for Union commanders, including Lincoln, Grant, and William Tecumseh Sherman.[42]

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The Robert E. Lee tree in Kings Canyon National Park is one of four California redwoods named for the rebel general. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia public domain

Education has long been a centerpiece of the Lost Cause tradition, so it is not entirely surprising that several schools in California should be named for rebels. When a Long Beach school took Robert E. Lee’s name in 1935, it elicited some grumbling from local residents. But others, including a commentator as far off as Warren, Pennsylvania, applauded the school. “Northerners have been able to see more and more clearly that the character and knightly manhood of Lee constitute one of the country’s most precious possessions,” read a glowing column in the Warren Times-Mirror.[43] Roughly twenty-five years later, another elementary school named for the Confederate general opened in San Diego, amid a national backlash over school desegregation. In attendance at the school’s dedication were officers of the Stonewall Jackson Chapter of the UDC, who presented a portrait of Lee for the occasion.[44] In East Los Angeles, a middle school bears the name of filmmaker D. W. Griffith. Although Griffith was not a Confederate veteran himself, his 1915 film epic Birth of a Nation did more to romanticize the Lost Cause than anything before it, not to mention reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan, which had been more or less dormant since the 1870s.

The Vanishing Confederate in Twenty-First-Century California

Like their counterparts in the South, most of California’s Confederate markers were products either of the Jim Crow era or of pushback against civil rights activism in the mid-twentieth century. And as in the South, the Confederate culture of California has recently come under attack for its deep-rooted associations with white supremacy. Nevertheless, the Lost Cause in California lives on, even if diminished in stature. Memorial associations continue to gather, to dispense scholarships to descendants of rebel veterans, and to mobilize politically for the preservation of their monuments. The tide of public opinion may be against them now, but pockets of California have nurtured their Confederate connections into the twenty-first century.

One of the most audacious Confederate monuments in the West was erected as recently as May 2004. It was a curious one: a nine-foot granite pillar in an Orange County cemetery bearing the names of numerous rebels, including some, like Stonewall Jackson, who had never set foot in the state. Inscribed on the monument’s pedestal was characteristic Lost Cause rhetoric, with a Western twist: “to honor the sacred memory of the pioneers who built Orange County after their valiant effort to defend the Cause of Southern Independence.” Some of these Confederate veterans were buried in the Santa Ana cemetery where the monument stood. In this regard, the Orange County marker was not unlike the Hollywood memorial, erected nearly a century earlier. Also like the Hollywood marker, it drew little criticism when a local Confederate memorial association unveiled it. The dedication ceremony, organized by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, was a celebratory affair, with patrons and supporters posing proudly for the occasion in period costume, including Confederate gray.[45]

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The Sons of Confederate Veterans erected this nine-foot granite monument to the rebel veterans of Orange County in 2004. It stood in Santa Ana Cemetery until its removal in August 2019.
Photo courtesy of Gustavo Arellano

At the turn of the twenty-first century, rebel memorial associations were still thriving across California, despite their geographic and temporal distance from the Civil War. While the Sons of Confederate Veterans scored perhaps the greatest contemporary coup for the Old South in the Far West with their Santa Ana monument, the UDC maintained a robust presence in California as well. A 1999 national register of the UDC lists eighteen chapters within California alone. For comparison, the next closest free states in terms of UDC activity, Ohio and New York, each had only three chapters. California was also home to more UDC chapters than several former slave states, including Missouri, Kentucky, and Arkansas.[46] UDC membership in California has dipped slightly in recent years, but as of this writing there are still fourteen active chapters within the state, according to the California Division’s official website.[47]

While still numerous, California’s Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy have become more circumspect in recent years. Once a sunny haven for rebel veterans and their offspring, California is now largely hostile to open displays of Confederate heritage. In 2014, the legislature passed a law that prohibits the state from displaying or selling the Confederate battle flag or related imagery, unless for educational purposes. That law, however, drew a First Amendment challenge a year later, after organizers of the Big Fresno Fair, an annual event on state property, barred a Civil War–themed painting showing the Confederate flag. The artist successfully sued, claiming that his depiction of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, featuring Confederate troops and their flag, had been unlawfully rejected. In the settlement, the state agreed that the ban does not apply to individual citizens, who are free to display and even sell the flag, either on private or public property.[48]

A new Confederate monument on the scale of the Santa Ana pillar would be nearly impossible to erect in present-day California. In the fifteen years since that monument’s dedication, Confederate iconography, and the slave regime it represents, has come under a sustained national attack. Violent neo-Confederates are themselves to blame for the turn in opinion. The anti-Confederate backlash began in 2015 in response to the murder of nine black worshippers, including the senior minister, at one of the nation’s oldest African American churches. The murderer, Dylann Roof, had proudly displayed the Confederate flag in his racist online manifesto before the attack in Charleston. In response, the South Carolina legislature agreed to take down the Confederate battle flag that had flown over their state house for a decade and a half.[49] This was followed by the fiercely contested removal of several monuments to Confederate leaders within New Orleans in spring 2017. Later that summer, the connection between racial hatred and the Confederate flag was again made explicit by an angry crowd of white supremacists who rallied around an equestrian statue to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the ensuing clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters, a Nazi sympathizer drove his car through the crowd, killing a young woman. Numerous Confederate monuments, including several in California, came down in the wake of her death.[50]

Due to its long history and size, the Hollywood memorial received more media coverage than any other Confederate monument removal in California. The story made national headlines and generated several features on National Public Radio and extensive local print and television coverage.[51] While the monument had stood uncontested for nearly a century, its removal came surprisingly swiftly, just days after the violence in Charlottesville.[52] Both the proprietor of the cemetery and the Long Beach Chapter of the UDC, the owner of the monument, yielded to a growing wave of outrage. Activists flooded the Hollywood Forever administration with calls and emails, while an online petition quickly generated more than 1,900 signatures demanding the monument’s removal.[53] A day before it was carted out of the cemetery, the memorial was vandalized with the word “NO” scrawled in black marker across its bronze plaque. When workers packed the Hollywood memorial onto a truck and drove it to an undisclosed location, they purged Los Angeles of its last Confederate link.

Activists have recently challenged Jefferson Davis’s presence in California as well. On the same day that the Los Angeles memorial was hauled out of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the mayor of San Diego ordered the removal of the Davis Highway marker in Horton Plaza. While the four other Davis Highway markers within the state have not been targeted for removal, none are in their original locations. Other Davis markers in the Far West have been more imaginatively targeted. In August 2017, activists with a particular flare for historical shaming rituals tarred and feathered a Davis Highway monument east of Phoenix, Arizona.[54] The Jeff Davis Peak near Lake Tahoe, California, has retained its name for well over a century, but that too may soon change. The Hung-A-Lel-Ti Woodfords Washoe tribe has proposed a Native name, “Da-ek Dow Go-et” (or “saddle between two points”), in place of the Confederate president’s. The proposal is pending with the U.S. Board of Geographical Names.[55]

Like his rebel commander-in-chief, Robert E. Lee is no longer as prominent in California as he once was. The Confederate general’s name still graces four redwoods within the state, but his schools in Long Beach and San Diego have since been rechristened. After fifty-seven years, Robert E. Lee Elementary in San Diego is now, rather innocuously, Pacific View Leadership Elementary. The renaming occurred in May 2016, largely in response to the events in Charleston. Also in 2016, Lee’s name was stripped from the Long Beach school. It was renamed for Nieto Herrera, a local Mexican American activist and longtime ally of Cesar Chavez in the fight for migrant farmworkers’ rights. Proponents of the name changes argued that within such diverse communities it was incongruous, if not offensive, to continue honoring a man who fought to maintain white supremacy and race-based slavery.[56] There have also been recent calls, including an online petition, to rename D. W. Griffith Middle School in East Los Angeles.[57] To date, however, the school retains its associations with The Birth of a Nation filmmaker.

The Santa Ana cemetery monument may be the shortest-lived Confederate marker in California history. Erected in 2004, the monument was gone by August 2019. As with the memorial in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, the Orange County pillar became a casualty of rising local activism as well as vandalism. Just days before its removal, someone defaced the monument with red paint, spraying the word “racists” in large letters down the face of the granite pillar. According to cemetery officials, the monument had become “an unsightly public nuisance” (not to mention a political liability). A one-hundred-foot crane was required to remove the granite structure, which weighs several tons, at an estimated cost of $15,000. For the Sons of Confederate Veterans who erected the monument, the action was tantamount to “Santa Ana spit[ting] on its own history.” For others, though, the removal was more akin to a cleansing, purifying the California landscape of its long association with a slaveholders’ rebellion.[58]

Conclusion

Within the space of a few years, monuments tended by memorial associations for decades have been dismantled or renamed. The oldest and the largest man-made Confederate monuments—those in Hollywood and Santa Ana, respectively—are now gone. So too is the first California marker to the Jefferson Davis Highway, as well as the name of Robert E. Lee from all schools in the state. California, of course, still contains some relics of its Confederate past, including four markers to the Davis Highway, although no California motorists refer to any of their roads by the Confederate president’s name. And while the natural monuments to the Confederacy—Lee’s trees, Davis’s peak, and the Alabama Hills—retain their old names, those too may change.

Perhaps, though, the most surprising aspect of this history is not how quickly these monuments have come down, but how long they survived. For nearly a century, a six-foot granite structure paid tribute to the Confederacy and its soldiers in the heart of Los Angeles. In the teeth of the Great Depression, patrons kept open the doors of Dixie Manor and provided food, housing, and medical care to over twenty ailing veterans. Directly in front of the U. S. Grant Hotel, members of the UDC erected a large obelisk to the Confederate president. And after Union veterans had it hauled away in protest in 1926, the Daughters persisted until it was reinstalled in the mid-1950s. To this day, far more Confederate memorial chapters can be found in California than in any other free state. Physical monuments to the rebellion may be vanishing from California, but these Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy continue to celebrate their peculiar version of the Civil War. Through them, a small part of the slave South lives on in the Far West.

Notes

[1] The perpetrator, James Fields Jr., was convicted of first-degree murder in December 2018; Jonathan M. Katz and Farah Stockman, “James Fields Guilty of First-Degree Murder in Death of Heather Heyer,” New York Times, December 7, 2018.

[2] See the statistics on Confederate markers across the country compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center: https://www.splcenter.org/20190201/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy. Oklahoma contains about as many Confederate monuments and place-names as California, but because the major Native nations of Indian Territory (roughly the present state of Oklahoma) had legalized slavery and officially sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War, I have included Oklahoma in my designation of the “slave South.” The detailed national map of Confederate markers and place-names, compiled by the SPLC, actually misses several in California, including the memorial in Hollywood and another in Orange County.

[3] For a succinct catalog of these monuments and their histories, see Mike Moffitt, “Are All the Monuments to White Supremacy in California Gone Yet?” SFGate, April 7, 2019; and Kevin Waite, “California’s Forgotten Confederate History,” New Republic, August 19, 2019.

[4] California would not ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments until 1959 and 1962, respectively. For the state’s long proslavery history, see Stacey Smith, Freedom’s Frontier: California and the Struggle over Unfree Labor, Emancipation and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Leonard Richards, The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2007); Rudolph M. Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977); Kevin Waite, “The Slave South in the Far West: California, the Pacific, and Proslavery Visions of Empire,” PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2016.

[5] By 1870, there were roughly 21,000 migrants from the former Confederate states in California, far more than could be found in any other Far Western state or territory at the time. For figures, see Francis A. Walker, A Compendium of the Ninth Census (June 1, 1870), Compile Pursuant to a Concurrent Resolution of Congress, and Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1872), 378–388; Eugene H. Berwanger, The West and Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 19–20; Doris Marion Wright, “The Making of Cosmopolitan California: An Analysis of Immigration, 1848–1870,” California Historical Society Quarterly 19 (December 1940), 339.

[6] Edward A. Pollard, The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates (New York: E.B. Treat, 1866).

[7] For useful introductions to the history and evolution of the Lost Cause, see Gary W. Gallagher, “Introduction,” and Alan T. Nolan, “The Anatomy of the Myth,” both in Gallagher and Nolan (eds.), The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).

[8] The literature on the Lost Cause and Civil War memory is vast. For some of the most important works on the subject, see Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980); Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2001); Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003); Caroline Janney, Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Caroline Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); Thomas L. Connelly and Barbara L. Bellows, God and General Longstreet: The Lost Cause and the Southern Mind (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995); Kirk Savage, Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, new ed., 2018). On the recent debates over Confederate iconography in particular, see Catherine Clinton (ed.), Confederate Statues and Memorialization (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019). For important recent studies that address Civil War memory in other parts of the West, see Matthew Christopher Hulbert, The Ghosts of Guerrilla Memory: How Civil War Bushwhackers Became Gunslingers in the American West (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016); and Matthew E. Stanley, The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017).

[9] See Smith, Freedom’s Frontier; Richards, California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War; Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California; Kevin Waite, West of Slavery: The Continental Crisis of the Civil War Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming); Joshua Paddison, American Heathens: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California (Berkeley and San Marino: University of California Press and the Huntington Library, 2012); D. Michael Bottoms, An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850–1890 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

[10] Kevin Waite, “The West and Reconstruction after the Civil War,” in Andrew L. Slap (ed.), Oxford Handbook on Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); Waite, “Slave South in the Far West,” ch. 6.

[11] San Francisco Examiner, July 24, 1865; June 12, 1865.

[12] San Francisco Examiner, January 11, 1869.

[13] San Francisco Elevator, July 28, 1865.

[14] San Francisco Examiner, July 8, 1868; November 23, 1868.

[15] San Francisco Examiner, April 21, 1869.

[16] San Francisco Examiner, July 23, 1867. For more tributes to the South and southerners, see San Francisco Examiner, July 8, 1868; January 16, 1869.

[17] General Lee’s Farewell Address to the Army of Northern Virginia, April 10, 1865 (Petersburg, 1865), Library of Congress.

[18] Quoted in W. Stuart Towns, Enduring Legacy: Rhetoric and Ritual of the Lost Cause (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012), 31; see also Cox, Dixie’s Daughters.

[19] This early history is briefly recounted in UDC, United Daughters of the Confederacy Patriot Ancestor Album (Paducah, KY: Turner, 1999), 23–24. The United Confederate Veterans also organized a Pacific Division at the turn of the century. It was headquartered in Los Angeles; see “Organization of Camps in the United Confederate Veterans Association, Prepared Expressly for Use of Delegates to the Thirteenth Reunion and Meeting of the Association” (New Orleans, 1903).

[20] Smaller collections related to the California UDC can be found at the Seaver Center for Western History Research and the Huntington Library.

[21] Joseph Lancaster Brent, Memoirs of the War between the States (New Orleans: Fontana Printing, 1940), 22–23. See also Daniel Lynch, “Southern California Chivalry: Southerners, Californios, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance,” California History 91 (Fall 2014); Waite, “Slave South in the Far West,” ch. 3; John Mack Faragher, Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016), 376.

[22] Daniel Brendan Lynch, “Southern California Chivalry: The Convergence of Southerners and Californios in the Far Southwest, 1846–1866,” PhD diss., UCLA, 2015.

[23] Faragher, Eternity Street, 385–386.

[24] Horace Bell, On the Old West Coast: Being Further Reminiscences of a Ranger, ed. Lanier Bartlett (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1930), 72.

[25] On the secessionist presence in Civil War California, see Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (hereafter “OR”), series I, vol. L, part 1, pp. 563–566; Sumner to Colonel E. D. Townsend, Assistant Adjutant-General, Department of the Pacific, April 28, 1861, OR, series I, vol. L, part 1, p. 472; [San Francisco businessmen] to Simon Cameron, August 28, 1861, OR, series I, vol. L, part 1, 589–591; San Francisco Bulletin, September 13, 1862; Los Angeles Southern News, March 1, 1861. See also John W. Robinson, Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860–1865 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977, 2013); Glenna Matthews, The Golden State in the Civil War: Thomas Starr King, the Republican Party, and the Birth of Modern California (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Helen B. Walters, “Confederates in Southern California,” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 35 (March 1953); Ronald C. Woolsey. “The Politics of a Lost Cause: ‘Seceshers’ and Democrats in Southern California during the Civil War,” California History 69 (Winter 1990/1991); Woolsey, “Disunion or Dissent? A New Look at an Old Problem in Southern California: Attitudes toward the Civil War,” Southern California Quarterly 66 (Fall 1984); Albert Lucian Lewis, “Los Angeles in the Civil War Decades, 1850–1868,” PhD diss., University of Southern California, 1970.

[26] Staff correspondent, “U.D.C.,” Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1925.

[27] Staff correspondent, “Fete Chief of United Daughters,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 1925.

[28] Connie Walton Moretti, Dixie Manor Days: The Confederate Veterans Who Lived There and the UDC Members Who Made It Possible (Redondo Beach, CA.: Mulberry Bush, 2004), 5.

[29] In addition to numerous homes within the former slave states, there was also one in Ardmore, Oklahoma, part of Confederate-held Indian Territory for much of the war. For more on these Confederate soldiers’ homes, see Rusty Williams, My Old Confederate Home: A Respectable Place for Civil War Veterans (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010); and R. B. Rosenburg, Living Monuments: Confederate Soldiers’ Homes in the New South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

[30] Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1936.

[31] Los Angeles Times, April 20, 1936; Moretti, Dixie Manor Days, 9–44.

[32] Euan Hague and Edward H. Sebesta, “The Jefferson Davis Highway: Contesting the Confederacy in the Pacific Northwest,” Journal of American Studies 45 (May 2011), 281–301.

[33] Kevin Waite, “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire in the Far West,” Journal of the Civil War Era 6 (December 2016), 536–565. See also Jefferson Davis, “Report of the Secretary of War, December 3, 1855,” in Dunbar Rowland (ed.), Jefferson Davis, Constitutionalist: His Letters, Papers and Speeches (Jackson: Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1923), vol. 2, 567–570; James Gadsden to Jefferson Davis, May 23, 1853, Jefferson Davis Papers, Special Collections & Archives, Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky.

[34] See the speech of Thomas Jefferson Green near Marshall, Texas, excerpted in the Texas State Gazette, July 29, 1854.

[35] Congressional Globe, 37th Congress, 2nd session (May 5, 1862), p. 1948; and 37th Congress, 2nd session (May 6, 1862), p. 1950. See also Robert R. Russel, Improvement of Communication with the Pacific Coast as an Issue in American Politics, 1783–1864 (Cedar Rapids, IA: Torch Press, 1948), 294–307.

[36] This argument first appeared in Kevin Waite, “The Largest Confederate Monument in American Can’t Be Taken Down,” Washington Post, August 22, 2017, which was later anthologized in Clinton, Confederate Statues and Memorialization, 132–136.

[37] Roughly a century earlier, slaveholding railroad developers also eyed San Diego as the most desirable terminus for their proposed transcontinental railroad. See Waite, “Slave South in the Far West,” ch. 2.

[38] San Diego Union-Tribune, August 16, 2017.

[39] Jefferson Davis, Report of the Secretary of War on the Several Pacific Railroad Expeditions (Washington, DC: A.O.P. Nicholson, 1855), 8–34; 37–39; and Waite, “Jefferson Davis and Proslavery Visions of Empire,” 542–544.

[40] Bakersfield.com, August 23, 2017, https://www.bakersfield.com/news/artifact-of-confederate-figure-rests-mostly-unnoticed-at-kern-county/article_2525c98a-8859-11e7-82dc-d34e857dbee0.html.

[41] Matt Johnson, “Roust the Rebels from Our Mountains,” Sierra Splendor, April 10, 2016, http://sierrasplendor.com/2016/04/10/roust-the-rebels-from-our-mountains/.

[42] Detailed information on the Lee trees can be found at http://famousredwoods.com/robert_e_lee/.

[43] “A Fine Example,” Warren Times Mirror, December 17, 1935.

[44] Maureen Magee, “Robert E. Lee school name changed,” San Diego Union-Tribune, May 23, 2016.

[45] Gustavo Arellano, “California’s Last Confederate Monument Is at Santa Ana Cemetery—and It Was Erected in 2004,” OC Weekly, August 17, 2017.

[46] UDC, United Daughters of the Confederacy Patriot Ancestor Album, 5–10.

[47] For a list of active chapters and further information on the UDC’s activities within the state, see the website of the California Division: http://californiaudc.com/.

[48] “California Confederate flag ban excludes individuals, state says,” Associated Press, May 2, 2017; see also “Editorial: Taking a ban on Confederate flag displays to an absurd extreme,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2016.

[49] Sarah McCammon, “2 Years after S.C.’s Flag Came Down, Cities Grapple with Confederate Symbols,” National Public Radio, July 10, 2017.

[50] Leanna Garfield and Ellen Cranley, “More Than a Year after Charlottesville, These Cities across the US Have Torn Down Controversial Confederate Monuments,” Business Insider, January 15, 2019.

[51] For a sampling of that news coverage, across the political spectrum, see Alene Tchekmedyian, Irfan Khan, and Veronica Rocha, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Removes Confederate Monument after Calls from Activists and Threats of Vandalism,” Los Angeles Times, August 16, 2017; “Does Los Angeles Have a Confederate Monument problem?” KCRW radio, August 16, 2017; “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Removes Confederate Monument,” KPCC radio, August 16, 2017; Ian Lovett, “Landmark Cemetery in Los Angeles Removes Confederate Monument,” Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2017; Joel B. Pollak, “Threats Force Hollywood Cemetery to Remove Confederate Memorial,” Breitbart, August 16, 2017.

[52] The monument first came to public attention roughly a week before the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when the Los Angeles Times published my op-ed, “The Struggle over Slavery Was Not Confined to the South, L.A. Has a Confederate Memorial Problem Too,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2017.

[53] “Remove the Confederate Monument from Hollywood Forever,” Change.org petition, https://www.change.org/p/remove-the-confederate-monument-from-hollywood-forever.

[54] William Hughes, “Somebody tarred and feathered a memorial to Jefferson Davis,” AV Club, August 18, 2017.

[55] Mike Moffitt, “Confederate landmarks near Tahoe could get Native American name,” SFGate, May 15, 2018 (https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Confederate-landmark-Tahoe-Jeff-Davis-peak-12917085.php). In June 2019, another Jeff Davis peak, this one located in Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada, was renamed “Doso Doyabi,” what the local Shoshone people have long called it; Dailykos.com, June 14, 2019, https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2019/6/14/1856404/-You-have-a-new-mountain-America-USGS-changes-name-of-Nevada-s-Jeff-Davis-Peak-to-Doso-Doyabi.

[56] Magee, “Robert E. Lee school name changed,” San Diego Union-Tribune, May 23, 2016; Soren Sum, “Robert E. Lee Elementary renamed after Long Beach activist with ties to Cesar Chavez,” Long Beach Post, November 3, 2016.

[57] Change.org petition: “Change the name of D.W. Griffith Middle School in East Los Angeles,” Change.org petition, https://www.change.org/p/los-angeles-unified-school-district-change-the-name-of-d-w-griffith-middle-school-in-east-los-angeles-there-is-no-room-for-racism-in-our-schools.

[58] Alicia Robinson, “Confederate Monument Defaced Last Month Has Been Removed from Santa Ana Cemetery,” Orange County Register, August 1, 2019; “Confederate Monument Removed from Santa Ana Cemetery after Being Vandalized,” KTLA 5, August 2, 2019, https://ktla.com/2019/08/02/confederate-monument-removed-from-california-cemetery/.

Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of history at Durham University in the U.K. His first book, a history of slavery and the Civil War in the American West, will be published by University of North Carolina Press next year. Alongside Sarah Barringer Gordon, he is codirector of a major National Endowment for the Humanities–funded project, “The Long Road to Freedom: Biddy Mason and the Making of Black Los Angeles.” He has written about California’s place in the controversy over Confederate monuments for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New Republic, among other popular publications.

Copyright: © 2020 Kevin Waite. 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/

Postcards Series

South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


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Nicholas Belardes

I. The Battle of Chester Avenue

We gather south of Chester Avenue’s railroad tracks. Air murmurs with violence. Everyone’s hungry for the blood of what’s taken place, a battle between freight train and car. We gaze at the aftermath. A hellscape. A nightmare. A car mangled in near darkness a few dozen yards from where Dad often takes us for burgers. A&W Root Beer. This is the periphery of how far me and my siblings are allowed to wander from our home on Geneva Avenue.

We heard the crash from our living rooms and front yards and now the community mobs the street. Years later I think this must have been what watching the Civil War was like: a community coming together to observe the collision of gunpowder, steel and flesh. Only, this is our poor man’s take. The barrio version. The working class.

It will be decades before I have any kind of worldview or identity. This is the summer of ‘77. California’s Central Valley. South Bakersfield. A few months before a gargantuan dust storm swallows everything.

Our mixed community as a whole doesn’t seem conscious of itself. Not tonight as we fume and buzz over the train wreck.

I’m small in the crowd. A thing. A feeling. A spore. A lost boy, decades from his struggle to fight political and social forces much greater than this metaphor of rails and blood. Before all the immigration reform marches and rallies. I’m in fourth grade. I don’t realize I’m fighting against this train. It’s smashing into my identity every day, the same way it barrels through Russian thistle and ghosts of. I’m not aware of my hopelessness. I don’t realize I’m the car. I only know I’m here. I want to see the remains of this disaster.

The police won’t allow anyone near the tracks. Not unless you’re a firefighter or detective. From the driver’s seat of our van, Dad, a self-professed ex-Bay Area cop watches the scene with a kind of calm. A vato with a mission. Somehow wanting to teach his kids that our world is violent, mercurial, dangerous. He seems attracted to the pull of violence, like he has to be in the middle of it. And since my brother, sister and I feel safe around him, we’re eager as we slowly park alongside this mass of bodies that fills this usually busy thoroughfare.

The freight train sprawls across Chester Avenue in semi-darkness. The car twisted and smashed against its engine. Detectives hunt with flashlights further down the tracks.

Parents, teenagers, and kids have congregated. What makes this crowd special is all the forgotten hate between neighbors. These people live next door to each other but never talk. They secretly throw rocks at each other’s windows when they’re not home. All the bullies are here too. The ones who pick on me at school—friendly during this snapshot of violence. All making up stories as fast as their mouths can yammer. They want to be heard. Even if only a half peckerwood like me is listening.

Necks crane to see what might happen next, whether ghosts might rise from rocks and dirt. Whether bodies might slip out of the mangled car and stumble herky-jerk down the rails.

“They’re looking for a hand,” says Ruben, a bully with a mouth scar that looks like his lips had once been sewed together.

Other rumors fly like bats. The train smashed into the car on purpose. The car flew across the tracks on a dare. A semi pushed the car into the train. Black, white, Japanese-American, Mexican-American—doesn’t matter who makes up each conspiracy. This could have been a meteor strike or space alien invasion and these people would have banded together to talk shit like it really happened. This is something I’ve never seen in the neighborhood. Something I will never see again except at South High School football games when families from the projects and low-income housing come to root on their racist mascots made in the image of Confederate militants. It’s insane if you think about it: Confederate imagery in the mixed-race neighborhoods of South Bakersfield.

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The Belardes family in the 1970s. Photograph courtesy of author.

II. A White Mythology

Confederate and Civil War imagery surround me. It’s 1982. I’m fourteen, a freshman at South High School. Home of the Rebels. The Blue & Gray. The Merrimac Yearbook. Johnny and Jody yell leaders in military-style grey uniforms and Confederate hats. Our mascot is a cartoon Confederate soldier. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. I don’t understand racism, slavery, war, who fought what or when, and for what cause. I’m so caught up in our school spirit I pin a tiny Confederate flag to a Confederate soldier hat my Mexican-American dad brings home from a swapmeet. He thinks it’s cool. I think this is what high school is all about. Rebel soldiers. Like Star Wars. Like The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t realize a cartoon mascot is a symbol for retaining an economic system that allows for the horrific right to own slaves. I somehow think I’m one of the good guys.

Street names around South High are all Civil War-inspired. Sumter, Merrimac, Monitor, Rebel, Raider, Evelyn. Evelyn might be Evelyn Magruder DeJarnette, a white nineteenth-century writer. She taught slave kids on a Virginia plantation. She culturally appropriated them by writing stories in slave dialect. Her husband was a captain for the Confederate Army, a farmer who owned slaves.

Take a turn down White (Supremacist) Lane onto Monitor Street and you’ll reach Plantation Avenue. An elementary school by the same name still stands there (So do the street names).

III. The Gridiron Race Riot

Sometime between 1984 and 1986 I’m in the stands above our school’s sunken gridiron battlefield for a matchup between North and South high schools. I’m tossing confetti, chanting cheers. I’m really into it when both football teams transform gridiron to full-on mob violence. Karate jump-kicks. Flying fists. Helmets swung like morning stars. A football coach gets smacked with a clipboard. Students and parents run from the stands. Not to break up the fight but to join in. If ever there’s a melee fueled by racism this is it, our twisted fabrication of North versus South. On one side, South High—empowered with its white mythology, though a mixed race school. On the other, North High, embedded in a mostly white community called Oildale, firmly empowered with its own white superiority complex and racist intentions.

While this is a mixed-race school versus a white school, I suspect South High football players of color had images in their heads of being shot if they enter the wrong side of town, of crosses burning in yards, of kids getting lynched outside the dirt-floor shanties of Oildale, California. This is the fear fed to us about the northern suburbs of Bakersfield. If you’re brown, you stay out of that town.

I can only imagine what’s been said on the field, what parents of either team have been feeding the minds of their children. Decades later a Black former South High football star tells me the n-word had been dropped regularly by North High’s feeder teams in years prior during peewee games. “We knew the level of hatred against our melting pot of a school,” he said. “That [North-South] game had been eagerly anticipated.”

IV. A Racism Origin Story

By the time Dad moves us to Geneva Avenue in 1976, the area is fairly mixed: Black, Mexican-American, Japanese-American, white. A wave of Vietnamese immigrants is on the way.

Our neighbors are Mexican-American on one side and white on the other. After the Mexican-American couple moves out, a Black man moves in. Dad doesn’t use that word when referencing him. He uses the n-word. There’s a clear hatred from my old man. Our neighbor avoids Dad, avoids all of us. You can see it in how quickly he enters his house, how he’s never outside, never greeting us. We never have a conversation in the four or five years we share the neighborhood.

I always wonder if Dad had ever really been a cop. In 2019, two decades after his death, one of my uncles says Dad’s cop stories were lies. I’d already seen photos of him in a uniform. Then a retired cop checking in to see if former academy members had died, phoned. Dad’s name had been on a list. Dad had definitely enrolled at the San Jose Police Academy in the 1960s. One of the first Latinos there, no less. Proof that he hung out with and had been influenced by powerful white men.

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But had he been an actual cop?

And if he had been a cop, why hadn’t he stuck with it? One family member said he couldn’t pass the height requirements at the time. Maybe he didn’t want some low-paying security gig as a result. That wasted police education maybe not only put that killer look in his eye, perhaps it transformed him into the assimilationist he was.

That means I was assimilated. No Spanish was taught in the home. Dad constantly told me I was white. He bought Confederate flags for my bedroom wall. Mostly American foods were put on the dinner table. Racist epithets were used in conversation and jokes. “Chicano” was never uttered.

Truth is, we’re a dual-ethnic family in our south Bakersfield neighborhood during those mid 1970s and early 1980s. The streets are rough for me as a result. Neighborhood fights get fueled by kids with giant boy egos and petty racial differences. More than a few punches get thrown. I usually just receive them. Terrified, I stand my ground, take some licks, never really understanding why fists matter. I toss a lunchpail at one kid’s head who fights my brother over us “peckerwoods” being in their hood. I’m too stupid to argue that I’m Mexican-American, Latino, or Hispanic. I think I’m white though my father’s brown as an oak-stained table. I run for my life. I hide in my room. I’m afraid of black vampires outside my window.

Dad just wants me to fight. He’s bragged for years that he was a cop. I want him to be a cop, my cop. But he doesn’t help or show me how to fight. He orders me to “straighten up,” to “be tough” with those n-word boys down the street. He talks tough, but what else is he? A brown cowboy? Some white image he’s pulled from American cinema? He loves John Wayne, Charles Bronson. He worships Dirty Harry, Billy Jack. Blazing Saddles. He wears a black cowboy hat. He drives a tanker truck hauling gas for an oil company. I later refer to him as mothertrucker. He carries a gun in a shoulder holster. He buys me and my brother cowboy hats and boots. He wants us to be him. He wants us to be what he isn’t.

V. Yell Leaders, Mascots and Monuments

Johnny and Jody Rebel stand on podiums on the edge of a stadium racetrack. All eyes on them in their Confederate uniforms as they lead cheers. It’s 1986. Johnny is a Mexican-American kid named Gabe. Jody is a Black girl named Georgia. Together they upend the image of the Confederate South. At the same time, they become a mockery, performing a bizarre cultural appropriation of oppressive white heritage that transforms students into puppetry. An entire mythology has been reproduced on the backs of Black and Mexican-American children. In this white thuggish military garb that literally screams enslavement, kids are transformed. They lose self-identity in the supremacist imagery before the crowd. They’re reduced to monuments. Symbols of a war meant to oppress, that sought to continue a way of life that made Southern planters wealthy.

The Confederate flag once flew over South High School. It was banned in 1968, the year I was born. No Confederate imagery is retired during my education there. Not the school mascot. Not the rebel military uniforms on yell leaders. Not the street names. Not the school names. Not even Plantation Elementary School.

Killing a flag wasn’t ever going to erase its shadowy image of oppression. Not with all the blue and grey. Not with all the misplaced school pride placed upon so many high school kids screaming rebel chants. A school’s fanatical pride isn’t unlike Southerner pride suggesting that times have changed when they haven’t.

VI. Marching

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Author, second to the right, marching.

On March 30, 2006, students from Bakersfield area high schools, including South High pour into downtown. I’m documenting the march for my blog wishing I’d been one of these high school kids as their throng enters a wide plaza outside the Rabobank Arena and Civic Auditorium.

Part of me is ashamed. Not for the kids. For me. But I don’t have time to reflect on South High, why it’s still seeped in Confederate mythology, or why my past haunts me. Right now it’s just me and a KERO news crew. We’re the only ones documenting this historic moment akin to the 1968 East L.A. blowout.

Then a car speeds alongside the curb. Out jumps Kern County’s controversial District Attorney Ed Jagels, mastermind of 25 false convictions during the Satanic Panic. Well-known for his ridiculous media posturing, he plants his face in his hands in mock desperation, as if the kids now swarming the plaza are about to climb the battlements and lay siege to a fountain.

A few days later I’m at Jastro Park documenting another rally alongside an AP news photographer. We’re on the same stage as Dolores Huerta. An ocean of red farm worker flags wave in front of her as she she dances with CSU Bakersfield professor Gonzalo Santos during a ranchera melody. I’m pulled into this. I’m feeling this intersection between farm workers, immigrant rights and the Chicano Movement. There’s something here I need to fight for.

By May 1st I’m taking part as an honored poet, hands shaking on stage at Beach Park, reading “Immigration! Interrogation!” to a sea of 10,000-15,000. It doesn’t enter my mind to think, Here I am, former South High Student on stage! Not at all. By this time, South High is lost to me, a place that should have corrected itself long ago. I take no pride in my connections to that institution, only shame. If anything, I close my eyes and see my street, Geneva Avenue. I see the paths I walked to school. I see the dirt fields and hear the train crashing over and over again.

Eleven years later it’s May 1, 2017. I text my youngest son Landen to see if he’ll come to Mill Creek Park to listen to me present, “The Mother of All Bombs,” a poem less about Donald Trump’s propaganda war machine, and more a revelation about ironies of oppression, the anger that is connected to it in relation to the southern Central Valley. I realize that one portion of the lengthy poem feels so much like it’s from where I grew up in South Bakersfield. Though about the oppression of place, I’ve generalized my own streets. I’ve hidden my old school, my old haunts, even my old living room on Geneva, with Dad inside telling me how white I am.

The Mother of All Bombs is the woman down the street
laughing at my words then waking up tomorrow realizing
she’s felt the heavy weight of America too.
How long did it take her to understand
she’d taken on the characteristics
of the oppressor, that she was insane, drooling
with madness in the Church of Intolerance,
while her own children were hungrier than ours
under the continued shame of Make America Great Again,
which here in the San Joaquin Valley is a
new special blend of McCarthyism.

After a long line of us march downtown, those of us who carried the American flag walk onto the stage. Music blasts from speakers. Some start dancing. I gaze into the crowd and see my son. I feel a pride I can’t explain. A connecting point. A circle re-attached. Landen and I were part of that march nearly eleven years before. He’d walked out with all those high school kids in 2006. We’d both later attended President Obama’s speech at La Paz, a historic dedication of Cesar Chavez’ resting place as a National Monument.

Prior to, and after that day in 2017, my son and I continue to share father-son discussions about art, words, music, taking risks, about not being afraid to make a statement about the world, and to the world. He’s often working on songs and sends rough cuts. Sometimes we call each other afterwards, talking about his latest lyrics, drum beats and guitar riffs. As we often do, we shift our focus to peoples and behaviors, to speaking up for others, to ways in which we can inject a more purposeful truth into our art. Inevitably, during these moments, I drift. Sometimes for only a second. That’s all it takes. The place is usually the same. I’m back in that old living room on Geneva Avenue. I see Dad’s face but I don’t hear anything as he talks to me. I see his eyes. I see that grim mouth. And I see change coming.

 

 

Nicholas Belardes’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in Latino Rebels, The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, and others. Read more at nicholasbelardes.com. Follow him on twitter @nickbelardes

Copyright: © 2020 Nicholas Belardes. 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/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots” 
  6. Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
Postcards Series

El Corrido del Copete

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


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Original Art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Myriam Gurba

The only reason I was sitting at the bleachers was because I wanted to watch this bitch get her ass kicked. This bitch, Karen, happened to be my neighbor. She lived behind a wall of pines, in a two-story mansion you could kind of see from my parents’ biggest bedroom window.

Karen’s pro-life mom drove a talking sedan and in a robot voice, the car would condescend to passengers, nagging Put on your seatbelt, whining Door ajar! I secretly hoped the car would kill Karen and her mother and I learned of its existence when a few of us missed the bus and Karen’s mom chauffeured us to the front steps of the shit show known as Orcutt Junior High.

Kids who went to Orcutt lied. Most of them claimed they went to school in Orcutt but according to zip code, these fools really went to school in Santa Maria. I knew why they said Orcutt. Claiming Orcutt was a way of claiming whiteness, a coded way of saying that you lived in the “unblemished” part of town. The assertion distanced you from Santa Maria. Santa Maria was “over there,” it was practically Tijuana: it was where “the Mexicans” lived.

Itty bitty Orcutt prided itself on not being brown and it styled itself as a low rent Mayberry replete with old timey storefronts that gave the place a settler vibe. When I ditched, I’d stroll Orcutt, noting its stock characters: the toothpick-sucking old white man shuffling about in dark denim overalls, the skinhead zooming downhill on his skateboard, the Christian youth group leader drooling over thirteen-year-olds eating fries in front of Charlies Burgers.

On clear days, you could see the ocean from Charlies. On even clearer days, you could see Casmalia, the toxic waste dump.

Karen wore the trappings of an oppressor. A pastel sock cascade devoured her cankles. Her denim shorts matched her denim vests. A scrunchie choked her half ponytail into place.

Scrunchie girls were the worst, scrunchies signaled a commitment to adolescent fascism, and Karen unleashed her KKKalifornia girl kuntiness on me the afternoon we first exchanged “pleasantries.” We were walking home from the bus stop, eucalyptus trees mentholated the air, and Karen eyed me like I was less than sirloin. The look gave me goosebumps, the ominous kind.

“What are you?” she blurted.

Dad had taught me to answer this question by declaring, “Chicana!” My intuition told me to keep it simple for my interrogator.

“Mexican.”

“Are you sure?”

Karen’s doubt took me aback. “Yeah. Why?”

“You have green eyes. Plus, you look Filipina.”

I remembered the Filipinos I’d played tag and kickball with up until last year, sixth grade. One playmate, Ted Aguinaldo, even told me that I was a very good kickball player for a girl. Ted’s family worshipped at the same church we did, Saint Mary’s, and Filipinos worked side-by-side with Mexicans in many places, including the hospital, the schools, and strawberry and broccoli fields surrounding town. Santa Maria was serious about strawberries, so much so that we had an annual festival where we crowned a Strawberry Queen. Such was our aristocracy.

I wondered how the fuck Karen was such an expert on Filipinos given that she lived in Orcutt’s whitest barrio: Lake Marie Estates. Yeah, I lived there, too, but I was, demographically speaking, the new non-White kid on the block.

“We had a housekeeper who was Filipina,” Karen continued. “You look like her.”

“Your housekeeper isn’t my mom.”

Karen kept staring at me, eyeballing my mustache, and I was on the verge of snapping, WHY DON’T YOU TAKE A FUCKING PICTURE?! when Karen’s attitude changed. In a fake friendly tone, she asked, “Have you seen Dirty Dancing?”

I shook my head.

“Don’t!” Karen barked. “It’s satanic!”

Karen was finally saying something interesting.

“Satanic!” I echoed. “Tell me more.”

Karen explained that since its plot involved abortion, Dirty Dancing was the devil’s film. Being twelve, I didn’t know what abortion was. I did, however, know the word abort and I wanted to abort this interrogation, go to the movies, get refreshments, and sin.

Karen and the rest of Lake Marie’s kids earned our distrust fast. Its preppy thugs welcomed us, the second Mexican-American family to take up residence there, by annihilating our mailbox with a baseball bat, aiming what the sheriff determined was a pellet gun at our windows and blasting them full of holes. I’m almost positive it was Karen and her flat-assed friends who snuck onto our property the night of the pentacle.

“Myriam!” Dad hollered one morning. “Go get the paper!”

I hurried across our porch, past Mom’s roses, and down our steep driveway. The paper had landed near a large agave. A mockingbird smiled at me from its perch, our new, still-intact mailbox. White caught my eye. I turned to see what it was and surveyed a dewy mess. Toilet paper mummified our oak trees and flannel bush. It draped the ceanothus Dad had planted along our hillside and a wet glob of it crapped from a branch, splattering whiteness across the soil. I snatched the newspaper, looked up, and saw an epithet written across our driveway. Its letters were made of something white, maybe sugar.

Skirting the words, I sprinted to our front door, threw it open, and screamed, “Dad!”

Dad appeared in ladies’ sweats. He prefers the variety of colors they come in. Wearing a worried look, he asked, “Is the mailbox still there?”

“Yeah but…just come look.”

Dad followed me to the bottom of our hill. He surveyed our yard. “Shit,” he said.

I pointed behind us, at the driveway. “Look.”

Colorless letters spelled EVIL BITCH. Beneath the accusation was a sugary star held by a sugary circle.

Through his angry beard, Dad asked, “Who do you think did this?”

“The bitch with the talking car.”

Ignoring my profanity, Dad said, “Go the garage. Get the push broom and clean this stuff up. Also, please bring me my chainsaw.”

I cleaned trees and shrubs and swept EVIL BITCH away while Dad found solace in cutting things up.

//

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Photo by Geoff Cordner

I hated the gym but I was in it anyways. The metal bleachers felt cold against my pompis. Down below, on the court, a boy dribbled a ball. Threw it.

He was not interesting.

Jenni was. I was focused on her.

Jenni was lighter skinned than me but definitely not White. She was sitting in the bleachers facing ours, and she practically glowed.

All of the social rejects hanging out in the gym were there for her.

We were TEAM JENNI.

Word on the street, and by street I mean our abusive-as-fuck campus, was that Jenni was going to discipline Karen. The bitch needed to be checked since she’d violated an important rule: Karen had shit-talked a chola. A Chicano, Freddy, had inspired the vendetta. Both Jenni and Karen had the hots for him, but Karen believed he belonged to her. She told everybody so. She also told everyone that Freddy deserved a classy girl, not a trashy whore like Jenni.

Now, because of her mouth, Karen might die.

I heard through the grapevine that to catch the violence, I should keep an eye on Jenni at lunchtime. After wolfing down tuna sandwiches, my friends and I spotted and tailed Jenni. She led us to the gym and we played it cool. Nobody wanted to tip off to the administration that an act of guerilla barbering was about to take place. It excited me that the fight was going to involve hair and apparently Jenni had told someone who had told someone who had told a tall Mexican girl named Summer that Karen was going to get jumped. During the attack, Jenni would use scissors and abscond with Karen’s dirty blonde copete.

I couldn’t wait for the de-banging, the hacking of a non-consensual mullet, and the promise of Karen’s assault gave me hope: squadrons of Karens and Matts tormented so many of us at Orcutt Junior High and for once, the meek might inherit the campus.

Amidst a sea of White teachers, a solitary Chicano taught science. White girls gossiped that because of his brownness, one should avoid being alone with him, he probably raped. And while shit-talking dark-skinned people was a popular campus pastime, woe unto those who talked shit in the righteous direction.

“Who do you think you are?” my White history teacher scrawled beside the F she wrote on an essay I’d done for homework. “How dare you write these things about Manifest Destiny?! Manifest Destiny is a sacred doctrine! Its why we’re here. What do you suggest White people do? Move? There are too many of us! Your suggestions are very offensive and unrealistic!”

Our male faculty were worse. They watched and did nothing when White boys lunged, pointed, and hissed the n-word at my beautifully fat lips. Sneering at my mustache, boys groaned, Ew. Yuck! The worst of them jammed their hands between my legs, trying to rape me with fingers lubed by chip grease. They didn’t hide their violence, it went down al fresco, and about once a week, marauders crept up behind me, grabbed my hem, and yanked my skirts up past my ribs.

One little gang turned my torture into a two-for-one. On their way toward me, they slammed a skinny Mexican boy against the wall, shoved their backpacks at him and turned on me. Our audience froze. Once I was scrambling to cover my private parts, the predators sauntered back to the Mexican. After snatching back their stuff, the burliest one drawled, “Thanks, faggot.”

My witness showed racial solidarity: he ratted my attackers out to our vice principal. Our vice principal told him nothing could be done about my constant degradation but he was lying, something could be done. Lore I hadn’t learned in school, lore I’d learned from books with bandits on the covers, pointed the way. These books belonged to Dad, they lived on our living room’s bookshelf, and they clued me into stuff my White history teacher pretended hadn’t happened. Gringos had been pushing Mexicans to the edge since they first trudged into California. Desperation turned us into desperados and after they laid claim to our land, money, and bodies, they left us a single valuable to defend: our reputations.

//

From the moment I first saw her shuffle across our playground, I’d admired Jenni’s walk. She moved pussy first, her clit was a bloodhound’s nose and Jenni dressed like my favorite gang-affiliated prima, la Green Eyes. Stretchy black jeans so tight her camel toe hung like lop rabbit ears. Nike Cortez. A black sweatshirt. Si hacía frío, a Raiders jacket cocooned her from neck to knees. La Jenni ratted and teased her locks identical to Green Eyes and her cynical baby face peered out through un huipil grandote de tehuana. Instead of lace and linen, the huipil’s ingredients were Chicana hairs shellacked into place by Aqua Net.

(If you don’t know what un huipil grande de tehuana is, picture a big-ass crunchy sunflower framing a güerita’s face. That was Jenni’s hairstyle. I worshipped it. It is possible to worship hair, especially when it communicates aristocracy and reaches for the gods.)

Karen was watching Freddy play basketball. Jenni was watching Karen. She sat a few yards away from her, glaring at her hair. Karen felt Jenni’s eyes and turned around. When she turned back, she was wearing a fuchi face. Once her eyes landed on Freddy, her cara de fuchi vanished. Adoration replaced it.

Jenni looked at her audience, at all of us gathered in the opposing bleachers. Slowly, she tugged her jacket’s zipper down. By their handle, she pulled out a pair of large shears, displaying them so that they glinted. The spectacle stoked our bloodthirst. I trembled. I was on the verge on making pipí in my bicycle shorts. Anticipatory states often make me wet myself a touch.

Cluelessly, Karen stood. She smoothed her sweater. She adjusted her socks. She walked. Her best friend, Sarah, followed her. After they disappeared into the courtside restroom, Jenni smiled. She stood. An entourage of girls followed her. Tracing Karen’s path, they entered the restroom. Those of us there for the reckoning held our breaths. We feared tipping off grown-ups. This desire forced us to play it cool. My sense sharpened. De repente, a scream like a demon giving birth to a two-headed Medusa interrupted the basketball game.

Most of the boys playing froze. Freddy kept dribbling.

Jenni emerged. A worried crease lined her forehead. With her hands in her pockets, she scurried along the court’s edge and flew out of the gym. Sarah tore through the restroom’s doorway, flailing onto the court. She grabbed the teacher refereeing the game by his shirtsleeve and shouted into his ear. His eyes widened and he shoved his whistle between his non-lips, blowing and blowing and blowing.

Euphoria filled me.

We had a hero.

//

During mi niñez bilingüe, two severed heads enthralled me.

The first was female. I met it in Anaheim.

For vacation, Dad drove us to Disneyland and at the Haunted Mansion, we boarded Doom Buggies that spun us around a house filled with ghosts like in the novel Pedro Páramo. My favorite specter was nothing from the neck down. From the neck up, she was Madame Leota, a pretty dead clairvoyant. Her head floated in a crystal ball at the center of a round table, overseeing a séance, and Leota’s makeup was spectacular. I wondered who did it. She had no hands.

The second head was actually several heads which had, and had not, belonged to Joaquín Murrieta. I’d learned about him, a Mexican bandit, from those books I mentioned earlier and when I mentioned my admiration for Murrieta to Dad, Dad filled me in on a chunk of the desperado’s tale that the books omitted: Murrieta’s executioners had decapitated him so that they could collect the high bounty that the state of California offered for his capture. Afterwards, some enterprising gabacho tossed his head in a jar, pickled it, and charged people a buck to see it.

According to certain audience members, the head in the jar wasn’t Murrieta’s. Vigilantes decapitated the wrong Mexican but really, aren’t all Mexicans the same? Aren’t we all bandits?

I’m a bandit.

The Mexican boy who watched my attack was a bandit.

Mom was a bandit.

Dad was a bandit.

My brother was a bandit.

My sister was a bandit.

Jenni was a bandit.

And because of that, the cops came and took her away. La copetóna never came back.

I would’ve paid at least a dollar to ogle her pickled piece of Karen.

//

The afternoon of the chopping, Karen didn’t ride the bus home.

The talking car came and got her.

The bus felt different without her.

Lighter.

The kids who typically did the torturing, the White boys who spit on girls and called us hairy cunts, the White girls who sneered at those of us with “hard to pronounce names,” acted a bit more reserved. Timidity had replaced viciousness.

I sat up straight in my seat, smiling, enjoying my ride home.

“This is how school should feel,” I thought to myself.

The bus sped along Clark Avenue, across the 101 Freeway, and up a slight grade. I looked out the window, toward the Solomon Hills. Dad liked talking about them. In 1901, William Warren Orcutt had struck oil there but that detail didn’t excite Dad. What did was the legend of Salomón Pico, cousin of California’s last Mexican governor, Pío Pico.

Gringos killed Pico’s wife, so to avenge her, Pico killed gringos. He ambushed travelers along the windy camino real, robbing them, dumping their corpses wherever he wanted to. Legend had it that he collected his victims’ ears and my mind’s eye conjured Pico resting in the shade of an erotic oak, humming to himself, petting his shriveled trophies, one or two still tufted with blood-matted blond hair.

The bus pulled up to my stop.

I disembarked Karenlessly.

I walked home Karenfree.

 

 

Myriam Gurba is a writer, podcaster and artist who lives in Long Beach, California. Her most recent book, the true crime memoir Mean, was a New York Times editors’ choice. Publishers Weekly describes her as a “literary voice like none other.” Gurba co-hosts the AskBiGrlz advice podcast with cartoonist, and fellow biracialist, MariNaomi. Her collage and digital artwork has been shown in museums, galleries, and community centers. Follow her on Twitter.

Copyright: © 2019 Myriam Gurba. 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/.

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