Tag: Race

Reviews

American Fruit

California Citrus State Historic Park Visitor's Center, Riverside

California Citrus State Historic Park Visitor’s Center, Riverside

Elisabet Barrios Mateo

I grew up surrounded by a vast agricultural landscape in California. I never questioned the orchards’ beauty, or the sweetness of the apricots and cherries it bore. In Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race, Genevieve Carpio peels back the history of the “Citrus Belt” in Southern California to reveal its unsettling past.

Reading Collisions at the Crossroads is like holding a hundred-dollar bill to a light and seeing its racial watermarks with a naked-eye. Through a deep analysis of literature, newspaper articles, maps, and legal and congressional records, Carpio exposes the many symbols of white supremacy embedded within these artifacts. She unapologetically argues that racial logics have been used to produce inequality via laws, regional policies, and cultural narratives in the United States.

With this book, readers will come to comprehend a dynamic portrait of how World War I and II, Dust Bowl migration, and the emergence of the automobile industry replicated the same racial hierarchies that nourished the Citrus Belt. It is a captivating read that weaves together athleticism, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Route 66 in eye-opening ways. Her argument of spatial mobility as a human right, powerfully contributes to the debate on whether or not race produces inequality beyond economic stratifications. The first two chapters come to expose how land rights favored white settlers, and how they leveraged citizenship and belonging through historical myths. The middle three chapters transition to uncover how economic and cultural disadvantages were produced through immigration laws, policing, and housing segregation that targeted racial minorities. The final chapter concludes by connecting to past and present debates on U.S. identity and belonging.

Carpio uses racial triangulation throughout her book to unpack race as a relative construct. Like Natalia Molina in How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts, Carpio argues that racial narratives are relational. Covering a longer time-period, she examines how Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, and Mexican communities were hierarchically positioned and selectively framed over the twentieth- century. White farmers entered the national debate on the Immigration Bill of 1924 to juxtapose Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Filipino workers to serve their economic interests while strategically framing people from all three groups as supposed threats to the Anglo racial landscape.

Carpio makes a resounding argument of mobility as a human right that cannot be divorced from the educational, residential, and economic outcomes that social scientists examine. She connects us to the past by drawing and expanding on old academic boundaries, while charting a new path for contemporary scholars and political leaders. Her book is a liberating piece that sheds light on the mechanisms through which non-white Americans have been excluded from full citizenship and belonging. It demonstrates the power of lies, storytelling, and the potential for reclaiming space through a collective narrative.

To varying degrees, each chapter provides evidence that communities of color have fought mobility constraints, which leads her to focus on resistance within legal and social institutions. Unfortunately, this leaves informal avenues of resistance unexamined. And yet we know that from common practices today, these informal avenues were likely also engaging spaces of resistance. For instance, contemporary undocumented immigrant communities use real-time communication chains to organize around police checkpoints and immigration raids. What might such informal strategies have looked like during the period Carpio examines? These could be crucial to understanding how non-white communities shift boundaries around physical and social spaces throughout everyday life.

Carpio’s book is a noteworthy contribution to our historical and present-day understanding of how racial hierarchies are used to curtail the rights and privileges of communities of color. She invites readers to learn about their not-so-distant past, while provoking them to reflect on the lies readers have imbibed and internalized. Reading a bit like a local version of Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, her writing poetically uncovers racial inequalities in the legal system, while simultaneously portraying a dynamic human experience. By the end of the book, the reader can hear echoes of the narratives used to forge the Citrus Belt in the political discourse under the Trump administration.

BookCover


Elisabet Barrios Mateo
is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on the ways federal law and state policy shape the sense of belonging for young immigrants in United States. She also writes poetry about social justice, the immigrant experience, and love.

Copyright: © 2019 Elisabet Barrios Mateo. 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

From Resourceful to Illegal

Becky Nicolaides

California resides at the leading edge of so many big political issues of the day—immigration, the #MeToo movement, social justice activism, climate change—and we can add another one to that list: Housing. If some believe that the affordable housing crisis looms as the “next big political issue,” California could easily be its poster child.[1] Crisis conditions have swelled for decades. It hits many, many people: the homeless in expanding encampments, their numbers recently reaching epic proportions; millennials struggling to find affordable digs in this jaw-dropping housing market, their searches triggering gentrification in low-income neighborhoods; working families struggling to put a roof over their heads. A recent study by the advocacy group Up for Growth found California leads the nation in housing under-production, falling short by a whopping 3.4 million homes in meeting demand and population growth.[2]

There’s a metric called “housing burden” that reveals a lot. It shows the ratio of housing costs to income. For my recent work on the suburban history of L.A. County from 1945-2000, I gathered data that traced this metric over sixty plus years in the county, and it looks something like the following:

chart

Sources: For 1950-2010, U.S. Census of Population, 1950-2010; for 2016, U.S. Census, American Fact Finder.

This is the kind of data that puts a pit in your stomach if you’re hoping to buy a home one day. I think of it this way: When my father bought our family home in South Pasadena back in 1966, it cost him about three years’ salary. Nowadays, it takes at least eight years’ salary if you’re even that lucky, and don’t hit a housing bubble, a recession putting you out of work, and or other potential macro-economic catastrophes working against you.

In metro areas like Los Angeles, San Diego, and the Silicon Valley, where suburban homes dominate the built landscape, it becomes more difficult to tackle this affordable housing problem. Strict zoning often limits the possibilities for in-filling or densifying built-up areas. Suburbia indeed is a particularly stubborn obstructer. If zoning doesn’t shut down the construction of affordable dwellings—like apartments—irate homeowners of all colors and classes will. They turn out in droves to oppose homeless shelters, low-income housing or Section 8 tenants, continuing a tradition of homeowner politics that’s been around for decades.[3]

Informal housing represents a creative response to the housing crisis, gaining traction in California with the recent passage of laws on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). These measures relax regulations on ADUs—like granny flats, converted garages, backyard cottages, and secondary units tucked away in suburban backyards—making it easier for homeowners to build them and even receive fee assistance.[4] It’s a very decentralized, individualized solution to the housing crisis. Rather than foisting large housing projects on neighborhoods, it throws the initiative to individual homeowners to densify from within. This approach has a suburban feel to it. The units are often hidden from view thus preserving suburban streetscapes, and they’re homeowner driven. It’s a deft solution to a vexing problem exacerbated by the suburban form itself. While it may not solve the housing crisis, it can chip away at it at the very least.

In this piece, I explore one slice of the informal housing story, focusing on the history of garage dwellings from the 1920s to the 1990s. At times, I hone in on South and Southeast Los Angeles, a part of Los Angeles where housing always had a dimension of informality to it, reflecting the strategies and needs of working-class residents struggling to get by. For generations, they maximized the productive potentials of their property to help make ends meet, set within the context of suburbia—towns with single-family detached homes, yards, and families. As the ethnic profile of southern Los Angeles changed, those efforts met with harsher challenges and barriers. In a nutshell, informal housing began as an auspicious opportunity for working-class whites in the 1920s, took on patriotic overtones during World War II, and then was essentially racialized and criminalized by the 1980s when the area flipped from white to Latino. Informal housing was suppressed right at a moment when housing need was exploding. This history reveals how housing policy became entwined with immigration policy at the local level, creating formidable barriers to solving L.A.’s on-going shelter problem.

Urban scholars who have studied informal housing emphasize the diversity and ubiquity of these units, which sheltered elderly parents, grown children, extended family, care providers, and the like. They appear in a variety of class, ethno-racial, and spatial settings, from rich to poor, sprawling to dense. My focus on southern Los Angeles necessarily narrows my gaze onto a population of the lower middle class, working-class, and the poor, who have remained a constant presence in this part of L.A. While it reflects county-wide trends in some ways, in others this story was shaped deeply by local conditions. These suburbs flipped from all-white to all-Latino beginning in the 1980s, a moment when deindustrialization ravaged much of South L.A. This trajectory mirrored patterns unfolding across the U.S., where Latinos migrated right into the “urban crisis,” into cities and suburbs suffering from disinvestment and white flight, seizing opportunity where others abandoned it.[5] In this maelstrom, informal housing was embraced and rejected—all at the same time—and it revealed the ways that suburbia was linking housing and immigration in new and disconcerting ways.


1920s: Working-class roots

In working-class South Gate, Huntington Park, Maywood, Bell Gardens, Watts, and surrounding neighborhoods in Southeast L.A., the streetscapes are suburban and always have been. Homes are modest, maybe squeezed in a little tightly, but they sit in tidy yards and gardens. Many are inhabited by families with children. And the overall physical profile is low-slung, with detached single-family homes, commercial strips, and shopping centers.

When these suburbs were first developed in the 1910s and 1920s, it was an auspicious moment in the history of metropolitan Los Angeles. It was a time when suburbia was an open, accessible, flexible landscape that offered working people the opportunity to become homeowners, practice small-scale homesteading, and in the process achieve a measure of self-sufficiency and independence. In suburbs like South Gate, this openness was created by the affordability of land and the town’s loose regulatory climate that allowed a family, for example, to live in a tent, jerry-build a house, and then raise dozens of chickens behind the house. These practices flourished in subdivisions like Home Gardens and nearby in Watts, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, and surrounding unincorporated pockets—where lots were small and cheap and families, poor. In these towns, the initiative for “development” was thrown to the homeowners who created their own version of sustainable suburbs. Their quotidian practices revealed a powerful ethic of self-reliance, frugality, hard work, and independence. And it gave residents a leg up, a chance to build a nest egg and secure shelter in uncertain times.[6]

South Gate Aerial

The wide-open spaces of early South Gate, March 1926. Ample, cheap land and lax regulation allowed working-class family to achieve a semblance of economic security in the young suburb, by self-building homes and informal structures. Reprinted in Huntington Park Daily Signal, 19 January 1973, p. C3.

This was especially crucial in the 1920s and early 1930s, when L.A. was rabidly open-shop and America still lacked a social safety net. Suburban homeownership became that safety net, in a world where sickness, layoffs, or old age could sink a household. For working-class families especially, the home was a source of economic security, something they could fall back upon in hard times. To squeeze all they could out of their property, they grew fruits, vegetables, and small livestock in backyards, took in boarders, or ran small businesses out of the home. Sweat equity—exerted in suburban yards and homes—became paramount. It gave them access to property ownership free of debt and a cherished economic cushion. In a suburb like South Gate, it was an achievable goal.[7]

Do-it-yourself construction was quite common, with many residents self-building their own homes. Daniel Smith’s family was typical. They constructed a small but sturdy home in 1926, soon after their arrival from Tennessee. During the building phase, they lived in a tent at first, and then a detached garage they constructed. The whole family helped out—including four young daughters—laying floorboards, handing nails to dad, and fetching tools. In a similar way, another Smith family—Frank, Estafana, and two daughters—lived in a modest home Frank built himself, two blocks away from “the sandy banks” of the L.A. River. She was an immigrant from Mexico, he from Germany. In 1920, thirty-six South Gate families were living in garages while building their own homes. The loose regulatory climate of these suburbs allowed these practices to flourish and lent the entire suburban landscape an air of informality. The homes were ramshackle, following few if any building regulations. These were grassroots, bottom-up strategies for grasping a semblance of economic security in insecure times. Especially for the white working-class such informal practices offered a crucial mode of economic sustenance.

wattshome

A modest-frame home in Watts (no date). This dwelling was likely self-built. Photograph by Louis Clyde Stoumen, photo number 00033658, Los Angeles Housing Authority Collection, Los Angeles Public Library. https://tessa.lapl.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/photos/id/1357/rec/1.

Thanks to a host of race restrictions in place, the overwhelming majority of residents in these suburbs were white.[8] Even so, some Mexicans managed to gain a foothold in the early years, in towns like South Gate, El Monte, La Puente, and Azusa.[9] South Gate’s Mexican households included immigrants, second generation, American-Mexican intermarriages, and a small colony of Mexican-born “white” Mormons who had been caught in a decades-long circular migration from the U.S. to Mexico and back again. By 1930, at least 175 residents of South Gate were Mexican immigrants and their kin, many of whomhad immigrated around the 1910 Mexican Revolution. They represented 0.9 percent of the local population. Of these ethnic Mexican households, homeowners outnumbered renters, a remarkable fact given that most of these owners were classified by federal authorities as “alien.”[10] South Gate’s earliest undocumented immigrants thus had managed to achieve home ownership within the suburb’s affordable, open, unregulated environment. Yet for most, that advantage was short lived—by 1940 many had left, possibly deported during L.A.’s 1930s repatriation crackdown, or in search of something better during the Depression. The security that whites achieved through homeownership eluded most of South Gate’s earliest ethnic Mexican families, likely because of their insecure immigration status.

The southern suburbs of L.A. were shaped deeply by these working-class roots, which generated opportunities along with certain formidable challenges. Early residents created towns out of shoddy housing, minimal infrastructure, and loose regulations. Rickety self-built homes, small detached garages, and cheap utilities made up the young bones of these communities. This established not only their physical foundation, but also local traditions of self-building, informality, and the expectations that homeowners could do whatever they pleased to maximize their property’s economic potential. This local culture gave working-class suburbanites a crucial economic edge, and it was built into the DNA of suburbs like South Gate and nearby towns.

 


1940s: Informal Housing as Patriotic Duty

By the 1940s, dramatic changes were afoot. The rise of the New Deal established a social safety net under American families—namely white families—gradually easing those everyday survival pressures. The labor movement gained momentum in Los Angeles and nationally, putting working-class families in a stronger position. And then World War II broke out. In the meantime, the combined pressures of the Depression—when home construction had come to a screeching halt—and the massive influx of defense workers to California created a housing shortage of epic proportions. South Los Angeles especially felt the squeeze, since this was where nearly half of the southland’s defense plants were located. In South Gate, the population spiked from 27,000 to 45,000 during the war. Yet local housing fell far short of need. By 1946, the crisis prompted seventy-five members of veterans groups in South Gate to petition the city council for immediate completion of city-sponsored emergency housing.[11]

This set off a major push to create housing for the millions pouring into California, including servicemen and women, defense workers, and other migrants. One huge initiative was launched by large-scale builders who drew on new federal supports and guidelines to mass-produce suburban homes at unprecedented scales. Los Angeles builders (like Fritz Burns) were pioneers, applying new mass-production techniques to the construction of homes. Developments like Westchester, Panorama City, and Lakewood were examples of this mass-building push to meet the intense demand for housing during and after the war.[12]

Another initiative was to encourage homeowners to convert rooms or garages to rent, a campaign that spread across L.A. County. Officials framed it as a patriotic gesture to help alleviate the housing crisis for homeless servicemen, along with defense workers and their families. In South Gate, the local war housing council put it like this: “Rent your houses to a war worker with children, and be thankful those kiddies are speaking our American language instead of Japanese.” South Gate property owners were urged to convert habitable spaces into actual living quarters, then list those units with a War Housing Center as a “patriotic duty.”[13]

The appeals worked. They spurred local homeowners to convert spare rooms and garages into rentals, a phenomenon happening all over Los Angeles. In 1945, a thirty-one-year-old veteran, his wife, and two kids spent nearly a year living in a garage in nearby Lynwood, with dirt floors and no plumbing or heating.. He claimed that they suffered no sickness because his wife “kept the place as clean as a pin.” In 1946, William Price, a fifty-five-year-old warehouse foreman, and his wife Edna were living in a double garage in South Gate. That same year, a family of four was living in a single garage in South Gate after moving from Oak Ridge, Tennessee where the daughter was “affected by atomic rays.” Another couple (a veteran and his wife)—was living for several months in a single room, “from which they were evicted just a few hours before their baby was born.” Similar stories continued into the 1950s. In 1952, a disabled veteran lived in a small dwelling behind a home in Huntington Park. The same year in the nearby Central Avenue district, a seventy-one-year-old pensioner was living in a garage cited for its “unsanitary conditions.” By 1961, the residue of these practices became clear even in the San Fernando Valley, where hundreds of homes had conversions for rent—garages, spare rooms, and add-ons—a practice that began during the WWII housing shortage.[14] The practice was common in suburban areas across the country, even as far away as Long Island, NY.[15]

 

The popular discourse surrounding these units reflected not just acceptance and praise, but a belief that informal housing was downright patriotic. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of features profiling garage conversions across the southland, from North Hollywood to Arcadia to Palm Springs. These stories offered good housing-keeping style tips on how to design and decorate a garage, complete with floor plans, and they presented the profiled garages as “model dwellings.” The subtext was clear: A wholehearted acceptance of garage rentals, with an appreciation for the resourcefulness of their white tenants who were making the best of a tough housing market. “The garage apartment where Charles Hofflund and his British war bride are living is an excellent example of how ingenuity can triumph over necessity,” declared a 1946 feature. The couple divided a double garage into a bedroom on one side and a living room and kitchen on the other. Through cozy decorating touches, such as pale green wallpaper and maple furniture, the tenants gave their garage “the air and informality of a cottage.” A 1947 article noted the temporary nature of the converted garage and praised its occupant—who happened to be an interior designer—for the cheerful, colorful flourishes she brought to the small space. “There is no feeling of ‘make do’ … of grinning and bearing life in a garage while waiting for building conditions to become more settled. Everything is so ingeniously planned, so adroitly placed and so pleasant to the eye that try as you may you can’t feel sorry for the Faulkners.” In West Arcadia, Dr. and Mrs. Milo Sweet converted a garage into a “liveable and attractive little cottage—all within a matter of less than two months.” With a minor addition, the garage was expanded to accommodate a living room, bath, kitchen, dining nook, and child’s room. “The cement floors were painted an ashes-of-roses tone to blend with the rug…. A needlepoint chair brings all the room colorings together in a Colonial bouquet…. The kitchen in this little cottage is light, airy, beautiful and practical.”[16]

A 1945 feature epitomized the cheerful praise, with the eye-grabbing headline, “A Garage Goes Formal.” The writer described the unit as “very dignified and sophisticated… this garage is frankly elegant with decorator touches that any city apartment might envy.” This was a second home for the dweller, who converted the garage to be closer to work. The Times praised his resourcefulness, and the fact that this was a DIY project all the way. The front door was salvaged from a junk yard, and the living space included a small kitchen, shower, and lavatory. The interior was decorated with red and white striped wall paper, a mirrored dressing table and crystal lamps, giving the space a “surprisingly Victorian atmosphere.”[17] In all of these features, the tone was admiration for the plucky, creative ingenuity of the people doing the conversions, who could serve as a model for others. In this particular context and with these Anglo occupants, garage conversions enjoyed an aura of legitimacy and patriotism.


1980s: Immigrant Suburbia and the Criminalization of Informal Housing

By the 1980s, Southeast Los Angeles experienced another sea change. Factory closures swept the entire southern part of L.A., transforming it from a vibrant center of industrial production to L.A.’s own rustbelt. By the mid-1980s, over 40,000 jobs in the southern suburbs were lost to plant closings and indefinite layoff. South Gate alone lost over 12,500, mostly high-wage union jobs.[18] Not surprisingly, real estate prices plummeted as the bottom dropped out of the local economy. This downturn in prices became a moment of opportunity for home-seeking Latinos. As a result, south and southeast Los Angeles experienced a radical demographic turnover from white to Latino. The entire area essentially resegregated, as the population boomed.

In many of these suburbs, the Latino population included both a small middle class and a swelling cohort of working-class and working poor families, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico, with smaller numbers from Central America and Cuba. In South Gate, from 1970 to 2000 the number of families below the poverty line rose from 7.4 to 17.4 percent of the total population. By 2000, 17,612 people in South Gate lived in poverty, many of them undocumented immigrants.

This human inflow sparked yet another housing crisis in South Los Angeles. While real estate prices had indeed tanked, the existing housing inventory did not come close to meeting the spiking demand for affordable housing. In South Gate, the very suburb was partly to blame for this crisis. In the 1970s and 1980s, local leaders refused time and again to build affordable housing, even when they had the funds to do so. While they went after federal grants to attract business and industry—to fill the gaping hole left by the plant closures—they directed little of those funds to low-income housing, even when that money was earmarked for it. In some ways, leaders in suburbs like South Gate and Bell Gardens used redevelopment money as a sort of “slow growth” tool: build for industry and retail, but not housing, since housing would draw more residents. These policy approaches uniformly backfired, resulting not in a slower influx but in an exploding housing crisis as the local population continued to soar.[19] From 1980 to 2010, South Gate’s population rose from 64,000 to 94,000—and probably even higher because of census undercounts.[20] This dynamic created a new system of housing usage, driven by poverty and immigrant insecurity, that transformed these suburbs into spaces of ultra-high density living where informal housing drove the trend.

In the 1970s and 1980s, L.A.’s southern suburbs entered the third phase of informal housing: An extensive “shadow market” of unpermitted rental units tucked away in suburban backyards and detached garages. Just as previous generations of working-class suburbanites sought to maximize the economic potentials of their homes, many of South Gate’s Latino residents sought to do the same by squeezing all they could out of their properties. This time, it was playing out in the larger local context of economic distress, constricted job prospects, and immigrant poverty. They jerry-rigged small rental units out of detached garages, constructed lean-tos, or otherwise found creative ways to shelter tenants. These practices were enabled by the loosely regulated climate of this working-class suburb—generations in the making—that endured through the 1970s.

Planning scholar Jake Wegmann has remarkably documented the rise of these units in Southeast Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s. He identified two main modes of informal housing: the conversion of existing space, and the addition of new space. These included partitioning a single-family home into multiple separate living spaces, converting garages into living spaces, transforming a home into a bunkhouse for “hot-bedding,” building onto a home in the back, and using a habitable vehicle or structure (like an RV or tool shed) on the property. This was a “deeply participatory” landscape, he notes, created by working-class people facing a brutally tight housing market. There were similarities to South Gate’s earliest working-class pioneers who self-built their homes; the crucial difference was that much of the latter-day working-class population lost out on the ultimate pay-off of everyday discomfort—property ownership.[21]

By the early 1980s, these informal units spread across the southern suburbs. Conditions varied from decent to horrific. In 1981 in Huntington Park, three adjacent double garages along an alley housed ten occupants. The living was rough—an extension cord ran from the front house to each unit, mattresses were spread wall to wall on the dirt floor, and a hot plate and refrigerator served as a makeshift kitchen. While the tenants had a portable television, they lacked plumbing—using a five-gallon can or a laundry sink as a toilet. A Huntington Park building inspector estimated that 50 percent of the suburb’s garage tenants were undocumented immigrants. In Norwalk in early 1981, a “small shed city” was erected behind two homes, consisting of ten metal garden sheds sheltering sixteen families. They jerry-rigged cooking and bathroom facilities in the same structure. In nearby Bellflower, most of the conversions were built by professional contractors and were “quite attractive,” according to a code enforcement office. The situation was more dire in Maywood, where hazardous conditions were reported—from raw sewage running under floors to exposed light sockets. Similar informal housing appeared in many poverty pockets across Southern California—from San Fernando, Pacoima, and Arleta to the north, to Santa Ana, Anaheim, and Long Beach to the south. In 1987, the Los Angeles Times published an expose on these illicit conversions, emphasizing their dire conditions and their tendency to house immigrants. While some scholars emphasize the ubiquity of informal housing—across space, time, and class—this working-class form concentrated especially in the southern suburbs, like South Gate, Huntington Park, Bell Gardens, and Maywood.[22]

In South Gate, the practice was quite widespread by the 1980s. In 1987, an estimated 20,000 people—about 20 percent of South Gate’s population—lived in a converted garage. A conversion, which could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 in the 1980s, might involve installing dry wall, tiles on the floor, and dividing walls for a makeshift bathroom. The garage door was often covered over with dry wall, eliminating that exit and concealing the living quarters if the garage door was opened. Health hazards ran rampant—cold drafts blowing through, poor ventilation, inadequate kitchen facilities to ensure food could be properly cleaned, cooked, and refrigerated, and the absence of bathrooms.[23]

Fueled by this shadow housing supply, the density levels in the southeast suburbs reached astronomical levels by the 1990s thus creating a pattern Jake Wegmann terms, “horizontal density.”[24] Maywood was the most densely populated town in California and among the most crowded in the nation. According to a study by the California Department of Finance, Southeast L.A. contained four of the five densest cities in California, including Maywood, Cudahy, Huntington Park, and Bell Gardens—the first three running ahead of San Francisco. Maywood had 25,083 residents per square mile, compared to 16,927 in San Francisco. Only a handful of cities on the east coast—including the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn—topped these levels. In towns like Maywood, the numbers were remarkable because that density was achieved mostly in one or two-story suburban homes and apartments.[25]

As shocking as it could be, this system of informal housing fulfilled the mutual needs of property owners and renters. For property owners, these rentals helped them make the mortgage payment every month and accrue savings. For renters, it was a survival strategy. Tenants were often undocumented immigrants, many arriving cash strapped after spending hundreds of dollars to cross the border and then ending up in low-wage jobs. For them, a garage rental was a viable option in L.A.’s tight, costly housing market; and the informality enabled them to evade the regulation of an apartment rental. Because everything was under the table, there was no lease agreement, no references were required, and instead of a hefty security deposit, a tenant could move in with just first month’s rent. For some, informal housing was a family-based strategy to provide shelter and pool resources. South Gate code enforcement officer Veronica Lopez estimated that in the 1980s at least 60 percent of conversions were done for family members.[26]

Garage conversion. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Garage conversion. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

This informal housing system created a novel scenario of interclass proximity in suburbia. Contrary to more typical suburbs that excluded the poor, these communities not only housed the poor but did so in the most integrated, intimate way—within the spaces of domestic homes and property. The poor were not relegated to housing complexes or fringe settlements. They were interspersed in backyard garages, rental rooms, and ad-hoc backyard dwellings, physically present in the suburbs’ most private spaces. Despite all efforts to eradicate these spaces, the system persisted and adapted, housing a permanent resident underclass in South Gate. By 2011, South Gate had a comparatively low homeless population, suggesting that this system helped keep people off the streets in some type of shelter, however substandard.[27]

In the 1980s, local leaders in South Gate and some of its neighboring towns launched a massive crackdown on these units. This represented a jarring break with the past in that it was the first time local informal housing was criminalized and heavily regulated. Not surprisingly, it was also identified as an immigrant problem. These measures were part of a broader clampdown on Latino public life in South Gate that was meant to preserve a more traditional Anglo suburban aura that many felt was slipping away. Some leaders behind these campaigns were Latinos, recently elected to local office. The spatial policing that ensued represented a local layer of the state’s apparatus that rendered undocumented Mexicans “illegal” in the context of everyday life. For the first time in its history, local leaders transformed South Gate from a loosely regulated into a highly regulated suburb.

Part of what drove this shift was the intensifying pressure on local jobs, services, and infrastructure, which many blamed on the immigrant influx. Reeling from the mass exodus of factory jobs, intense anxiety over job losses led to scapegoating of Mexicans and “illegal aliens.” In 1984, the South Gate Press ran a front-page story declaring, “Illegal aliens said to take most new jobs.”[28] Strains on local services and infrastructure were likewise blamed on immigrants, whose presence in shadow housing overtaxed water systems, sewers, and the schools. South Gate, in fact, was suffering from massive overcrowding in its schools, which forced the adoption of a year-round school schedule and bussing kids to schools as far away as the San Fernando Valley.[29] Many blamed the school crisis on the housing situation.

A crackdown ensued. Local leaders launched a spatial “law and order” campaign that built upon prior 1960s city beautification efforts, but it did indeed take things in a more punitive, racialized direction. It deployed the teeth of local regulation and enforcement to codify the strictest land use measures in the town’s history. These rules were meant to ensure a suburb of properly utilized single-family homes and public spaces, and they were implicitly aimed against Latinos who were perceived as the main violators. This spatial crackdown was a broad initiative across the southeast suburbs, with Bell, Bell Gardens, Cudahy, Maywood, Lynwood, and Huntington Park initiating similar campaigns against suburban “decay,” “eyesores,” and garage conversions. South Gate’s measures were among the strictest.[30]

In 1981, the city council launched a protracted campaign against informal housing. It began by beefing up the suburb’s enforcement authority around building code violations. An amendment to the municipal building code allowed the city to take violators “directly to a court judge” and re-designated violations to a fine-able “infraction” of the law. Henry Gonzalez, who in 1982 became the first Latino elected to the South Gate city council, carried the momentum forward. In 1983, during his first mayoral term, he began a proactive campaign of spatial policing. It started with a monthly “mayor’s tour” of South Gate, where he and other local officials climbed into a van and roamed the suburb in a quest to “find the ugliest spots in town.” They jotted down addresses in violation of city codes, including illegally converted garages.[31]

A 1983 ordinance sealed the effort by mandating the proper care of local properties. Residents were required to mow lawns, pull weeds, paint homes, keep yards clear of cars, clotheslines, and junk, and refrain from unauthorized conversions. Violators would face criminal misdemeanor charges, with a fine of $1,000 or six months in county jail.[32] The next year, South Gate’s “fight against blight” included ramped up enforcement: A new team of six building inspectors—equipped with shiny, white 1984 Ford Escorts—were empowered to patrol the suburb and issue citations on the spot. This system of spatial policing, adopted by Huntington Park in 1980 and South Gate in 1983, was fairly rare; one Huntington Park official estimated that one in one-hundred cities empowered building inspectors to issue citations, much like a police officer. In 1985, South Gate passed a pre-sale inspection ordinance, which required a city inspection of all homes for sale, a measure expressly designed to combat illegal conversions. It essentially inserted city authority into a private transaction, giving officials a handy means for scoping out violators.[33] This new enforcement apparatus represented a key turning point—property regulation shifted from a reactive system that responded to complaints, to a proactive, well-funded system that sniffed out violators.[34]

Occupied RV. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Occupied RV. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Local debates around these measures reflected a racialized view of informal housing, by those both for and against the crackdown. They shared the view that the prime culprits behind informal housing were Latinos, often undocumented. Those who voiced opinions were mostly Anglos or American-born Mexicans, who felt empowered to express opinions at public meetings. Opponents of the pre-sale law were mostly Anglo realtors who feared the measure would hamper home sales, and long-time white residents who felt the law was an infringement upon their property rights. Dorothea Lombardo, a longtime resident, told the city council, “it was understood by the citizens that the ordinances were intended to keep illegal aliens out of the City but that law-abiding citizens are being hurt by these ordinances.” Lombardo had little sympathy for the undocumented and felt South Gate ought to use the INS—rather than city resources—to crack down on illegal conversions. Such an approach would kill two birds with one stone—eradicating both illegal housing and “illegal aliens.” Councilman Del Snavely voiced the opinion of some white residents that the laws should be selectively enforced—targeting units rented out unlawfully, but “grandfathering in” garage conversions done before 1960 (implicitly, by white residents).[35]

Other opponents saw the new law as a civil rights violation. For example, Gregory Slaughter complained to the city council that inspectors “told him they wished to check his garage for illegal aliens” and he believed “this to be a violation of people’s rights particularly in regard to searches.”[36] Larry Swisher claimed the housing crackdown had deeper implications: “The council wanted to get the illegals out of garages. They avoided saying it…” out of a fear of offending Latino residents.[37] Local officials ultimately showed some flexibility in financial hardship cases—homeowners forced to undo garage conversions—but this forgiveness extended mostly to homeowners not using garages as rental units.[38]

In the eyes of some residents, housing inspection had become a local tool of immigration control, despite the insistence of city officials that they were   “concerned about enforcing civil rights in this community.”[39] The system implicitly used housing code enforcement to regulate undocumented residents, and encouraged neighbors to turn in people they saw violating housing regulations. South Gate set up a hotline, and deployed code enforcement officers, the police department, and building inspectors to follow up on tips.[40] By this point, informal housing had taken a wide pendulum swing in South Gate—begun as a viable survival strategy in the 1920s, encouraged as a patriotic duty in the 1940s, and then fully criminalized by the 1980s, when the practice had become racialized and linked to undocumented Mexican immigrants.

Similar conditions and crackdowns occurred across Southern California—it wasn’t just a South L.A. thing. In the early 1990s, the Los Angeles Times reported on the ubiquity of garage conversions, from Temple City to Simi Valley to South Laguna. In the beach cities of Manhattan, Redondo, and Hermosa, illegal conversions were rampant as rents there skyrocketed. Young adults, single parents, seniors, and the poor lived in garages, like the two illegal units Edward Roszyk added onto his house in Redondo Beach. In another Redondo Beach home, the landlord lined his wine cellar with bunk beds and rented it out to sixteen Latino immigrants. Redondo officials received five bootleg complaints a month in the early 1990s. In wealthy Simi Valley, there were reports of single-family homes sheltering four to five families, and a family of nine crowded into a single converted garage. The crackdowns similarly spread—and many targeted Latino renters. In 1989, the City of Los Angeles clamped down on garage conversions in South Central—for the first time in over twenty years—when Latinos began moving into the area. And clear to the north in Santa Clarita, officials launched nighttime raids in 1991 on illegal garage conversions, targeting that sprawling suburb’s neighborhood of East Newhall, where Latinos were 90 percent of the population. Two members of the Santa Clarita city council were vocal supporters of the raids, hoping they would drive out “illegal aliens.” As one put it, “If we make housing more difficult to find for these people, hopefully, they’ll move on.”[41]

Just two months ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page story by columnist Steve Lopez on garage living among LA’s poorest.  Like the Times expose back in 1987, Lopez’s column delivered a powerful emotional punch.  He described how Alejandra and her two children lived in a garage in Pacoima for $900 a month, the small space partionened into a tiny kitchen, main living area, a small bedroom with bunk beds, and bathroom.  The walls were plastered and painted, a cage with chirping parrots sat nearby, and the space smelled of homemade soup boiling on the stove. Modest as it was, said Alejandra, it was better than what she had back in Mexico. The teachers at the local school elementary school claimed that garage living has been on the rise in recent years. The practice and the need, clearly, are still with us.[42]


Moving Toward Solutions

This story shows how policies toward informal housing have varied throughout the years, depending on factors like a particular socio-economic context, depending on who the landlords and tenants were, and depending on who was making such policies. Mexican immigrants were particularly vulnerable targets of housing crackdowns, exacerbating their insecure status via new modes of localized regulation upon everyday life.

Urban planning scholars like Vinit Mukhija, Jake Wegmann, and Jonathan Pacheco Bell have all argued persuasively that we need more flexible policies on informal housing if we ever hope to solve the crushing housing crisis in California and even across the nation. Such policies might support the practice of creating accessory dwelling units by providing resources and guidance for making these dwellings safer through upgrades and fixes. Total prohibition is not a productive approach. Especially in suburban communities, where we must devise ways to utilize land in more economical, efficient ways, informal housing holds immense potential.[43]

As Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris point out in The Informal American City, informality has the paradoxical nature of being both productive and exploitative, and—sometimes both at once. The challenge for policy is to emphasize action that privileges the poor instead of punishing them.[44] California’s new ADU laws are a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go. Once suburbanites and their elected leaders grasp the positive potential in informal housing—and the fact that it’s been around in L.A. a very long time—we may move a step closer toward solving our intractable affordable housing crisis.

Occupied Garden Shed. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Occupied Garden Shed. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

 

Notes

[1] Benjamin Schneider, “The American Housing Crisis Might Be Our Next Big Political Issue,” Atlantic CityLab, 16 May 2018, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2018/05/is-housing-americas-next-big-political-issue/560378/?utm_source=citylab-daily&silverid=MzEwMTkyMzE2NzgwS0.

[2] Madeline Baron, et. al, “Housing Underproduction in the U.S.” (Up for Growth National Coalition and Holland Government Affairs, 2018), https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/336283_2d8fcafe99fa4aa181dc9884864eb750.pdf.

[3] For example, see James S. Duncan and Nancy G. Duncan, Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb (New York: Routledge, 2004); L. Owen Kirkpatrick and Casey Gallagher, “The Suburban Geography of Moral Panic: Low-Income Panic and the Revanchist Fringe,” in Christopher Niedt, ed., Social Justice in Diverse Suburbs: History, Politics, and Prospects (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013), 31-53. A recent round of suburban protests against homeless shelter occurred in Irvine, spearheaded by Asian homeowners (Los Angeles Times, 1, 25 April 2018).

[4] http://www.hcd.ca.gov/policy-research/AccessoryDwellingUnits.shtml.

[5] Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America,” Journal of American History 101 (2014): 804-31; Llana Barber, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City (London: Verso, 2000).

[6] Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), chapter 1-4.

[7] Ibid., chapter 1.

[8] Ibid., 42-43.

[9] On El Monte, La Puente, and Azusa, see Jerry Gonzalez, In Search of the Mexican Beverly Hills (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017), chapter 2; Matt Garcia, A World of Its Own: Race, Labor and the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001). In My Blue Heaven, p. 44, I noted that very few Latinos lived in South Gate in the 1920s. That assessment was wrong. Since that book’s publication, the opening up of the U.S. Census manuscripts for the 1930s and 1940s has allowed me to correct that portrayal along the lines of my description here.

[10] Information on these residents reconstructed from: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. Census Place: South Gate, Los Angeles, California; Roll: 171; Page: 15A; Enumeration District: 1353; FHL microfilm: 2339906. Accessed at Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2002. I cross-checked with additional 1940s records on Ancestry.com—including U.S. Census, Naturalization records, and city directories. On Mormon colonies in Mexico around this time, see John B. Wright, “Mormon Colonias of Chihuahua,” Geographical Review 91 (2001): 586-96; Thomas Romney, Mormon Colonies in Mexico (University of Utah Press, 1938, reprinted 2005).

[11] Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, 220; Los Angeles Times, 14 August 1946.

[12] Greg Hise, Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth Century Metropolis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997); Greg Hise, “Home building and industrial decentralization in Los Angeles: the roots of the postwar urban region,” Journal of Urban History 19 (1992): 95-125; D. J. Waldie, Holy Land (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005); Barbara Lane Miller, Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in American Suburbs, 1945-1965 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[13] Los Angeles Times, 6 May 1943; South Gate Press, 6, 27 January 1944.

[14] Los Angeles Times, 11 November 1945, 24 July 1946, 8 April 1952, 16 May 1952, 16 March 1961; South Gate Press, 1 August, 3 October 1946.

[15] Jacob Wegmann, “‘We Just Built It’: Code Enforcement, Local Politics, and the Informal Housing Market in Southeast Los Angeles County,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation (Berkeley: University of California, 2014), 18-23; Tim Keogh, “Suburbs in Black and White: How Jobs Created Inequality in Affluent America” (manuscript in progress); also see Vinit Mukhija, “Outlaw In-Laws: Informal Second Units and the Stealth Reinvention of Single-Family Housing,” in Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 39-45.

[16] Los Angeles Times, 14 April, 15 September 1946, 17 August 1947.

[17] Los Angeles Times, 2 September 1945

[18] Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven, 329; Ed Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (London: Verso, 1989), chapter 8; James R. Curtis, “Barrio Space and Place in Southeast Los Angeles, California,” in Daniel D. Arreola, ed., Hispanic Spaces, Latino Places: Community and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004), 133-136.

[19] Graham McNeill, “Deindustrialization and the Evolution of the Working-Class Suburban Dream in Southeast Los Angeles (1965-1990),” unpublished seminar paper (Claremont Graduate University, 2014), 11-21; William Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles (Point Arena, CA, Solano Press Books, 1997), 85-87; Los Angeles Times, 1 October 1989.

[20] U.S. Census, 1980-2000. Local officials voiced concerns about census undercounts at least since the early 1980s: see South Gate Press, 26 July 1980.

[21] Jake Wegmann, “Research Notes: The Hidden Cityscapes of Informal Housing in Suburban Los Angeles and the Paradox of Horizontal Density,” Buildings and Landscapes 22 (2015): 89-110, Jake Wegmann and Sarah Mawhorter, “Measuring Informal Housing Production in California Cities,” Journal of the American Planning Association 83 (2017): 119-130.

[22] South Gate Press, 29 April 1981; Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 24 May 1987. On the ubiquity of informal housing, see Noah J. Durst and Jake Wegmann, “Informal Housing in the United States,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 41 (2017): 282-297.

[23] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 14 March 1985, 24 May 1987; South Gate Press, 29 April 1981, 20 June 1984 (on cost estimates); Veronica Lopez oral history, conducted by Becky Nicolaides, 6 March 2017, South Gate, CA, pp. 7, 15, 17-18.

[24] Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 120-123.

[25] Los Angeles Times, 19 December 1999; Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 65.

[26] Veronica Lopez oral history, pp. 7-8, 11-12, 15, 24-25; South Gate Press, 29 April 1981; Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1987; Wegmann, “We Just Built It,” 140-14.

[27] City of South Gate, “Housing Element,” in South Gate General Plan 2035, January 2014, p. 24 (accessed at http://www.southgatecc.org/community/planning-division/). In 2011, South Gate had 199 homeless persons, which represented 0.21 percent of the total population. The L.A. County rate was 0.46 percent of the total population.

[28] South Gate Press, 20 June 1984.

[29] For examples of the extensive press coverage of school overcrowding in this period, see South Gate Press, 16 April, 7, 14, June, 13 September, 8 October, 16 August 1980, 3 January 1981; Los Angeles Times, 9 October 1978, 9 February 1986.

[30] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983.

[31] South Gate Press, 17 January 1981; Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983; South Gate Ordinance No. 1562, 11 April 1983, South Gate City Clerk’s Office.

[32] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983; South Gate Ordinance No. 1562, 11 April 1983, SG City Clerk’s Office.

[33] South Gate Ordinance No. 1651-A, 3 April 1985, SG City Clerk’s Office; Los Angeles Times, 14 March 1985.

[34] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983, 6 September 1984, 9 February 1986. South Gate budgeted $265,000 in 1984, and $335,000 in 1986 for the enforcement of municipal building codes.

[35] South Gate City Council minutes, 27 May 1986, pp. 3-4.

[36] South Gate City Council minutes, 27 January 1986, p. 7, 10 February 1986, p. 5. Both Lombardo and Slaughter were later elected to the South Gate City Council.

[37] South Gate Press, 25 September 1986 (Box 6, file 14, South Gate History Archive, Weaver Library). Swisher was part of an unsuccessful citizen movement to overturn South Gate’s laws against garage conversions.

[38] South Gate City Council minutes, 23 June 1986. A war of petitions occurred at this point: the pro-crackdown side gathered 121 signatures, those against had 1,000 signatures. The opposition petition was never submitted to the city council because many people who signed did not want their identity revealed (South Gate City Council minutes, 27 January 1986, 24 March 1986), p. 7.

[39] South Gate City Council minutes, January 27, 1986, 10 February 1986, p. 5.

[40] Los Angeles Times, 21 December 1996. For example, one councilman reported on complaints from a resident that “illegal aliens” were living in a garage on their street (South Gate City Council minutes, 27 May 1986).

[41] Los Angeles Times, 11 May 1990, 7 June 1991.

[42] Los Angeles Times, 27 November 2018.

[43] Vinit Mukhija and Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014); Wegmann, “We Just Built It”; Jake Wegmann and Jonathan Pacheco Bell, “The Invisibility of Code Enforcement in Planning Praxis: The Case of Informal Housing in Southern California,” Focus: The Journal of Planning Practice and Education 13 (2016), http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/focus/vol13/iss1/10/.

[44] Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris, eds., The Informal American City, 9.
Becky Nicolaides is a research affiliate at USC and UCLA. She’s currently working on her third book called On the Ground in Suburbia, which explores how social and civic life evolved in LA’s suburbs from 1945-2000. Her UCLA website: http://www.tinyurl.com/NicolaidesUCLA.

Copyright: © 2019 Becky Nicolaides. 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/.

 

 

 

Excerpts

Protesting Displacement and the Right to the City

Photo Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas.

Jan Lin

Gentrification has increasingly become a significant issue in contemporary Los Angeles, especially in bohemian and so-called “ethnic” neighborhoods like Venice, Echo Park, Chinatown, and Boyle Heights. The Arroyo Seco neighborhoods of Northeast LA (NELA) such as Highland Park and Eagle Rock are significant flashpoints in the urban restructuring process that draws new white middle-class entrepreneurs and residents while displacing established immigrant and working-class people. Highland Park exhibits some features of “gentefication” that involve the participation of middle-class Latino/a residents and business entrepreneurs along with whites in the neighborhood transition process. But Latino/as are more commonly regarded as casualties rather than agents of gentrification as evidenced in the stark experiences of immigrant working class evictions and displacements primed by a hot real estate market driven by speculative flipping and growing corporate investment. Recently the gentrification and displacement frontier has shifted from York Boulevard to the main commercial district of Highland Park along North Figueroa Street and the Metro Gold Line. Here the troubling side of gentrification has intensified as larger developers are converting multi-unit apartment buildings and vacant lots into new market rate housing with the support of city officials and urban planning incentives from the City of Los Angeles.

The neighborhood transition process had been more gradual for decades from the 1970s to the 2000s as pioneering homebuyers, artists, and mom and pop entrepreneurs restored properties and culturally revitalized the NELA neighborhoods that had become disinvested in the wake of suburbanization and white flight. As the revitalization stage gave way to the gentrification stage in urban restructuring, investment accelerated in NELA in the wake of the great recession after 2010, when there was growing entry of speculator-flippers, corporate developers and architects, and governmental housing and urban development programs including transit-oriented development (TOD) and transit villages. The demand-side social agency of pioneers and risk-averse single-family home buyers increasingly shifts to the supply-side forces of capitalist investment and neoliberal public/private partnership.

As the urban growth machine propels gentrification forward in NELA, it exhibits sharpening socioeconomic and racial overtones as immigrant working-class Latino/a families are increasingly threatened with displacement by rent increases, mass evictions, and social uprootedness. Working class households and multi-family networks are even subject to secondary displacement as property transactions and new construction in neighborhood hotspots stimulate broader property value shifts in surrounding blocks and block groups. The creative frontier of urban restructuring in NELA exhibits a growing destructive violence that illustrates what David Harvey describes as capitalism’s tendency to foster “accumulation by dispossession” through privatization of public lands and public housing, slum clearance, property foreclosure and marginalization of the urban poor. He furthermore reflects upon how marginalized and dispossessed people around the world have ignited social resistance and insurgent movements to demand their “rights to the city” as urban inhabitants, despite their lack of property rights.[1]

As the urban growth machine propels gentrification forward in NELA, it exhibits sharpening socioeconomic and racial overtones as immigrant working-class Latino/a families are increasingly threatened with displacement by rent increases, mass evictions, and social uprootedness.

The emergence of the NELA Alliance with their first protest march and demonstration along Highland Park’s York Boulevard in November 2014 seemingly gave public voice to the neighborhood’s opposition to gentrification and displacement, as well as the need for more affordable housing. With their robust calls that “Gentrification is the New Colonialism,” and that “Housing is a Human Right,” the largely Latino/a constituency of the NELA Alliance expressed their frustrations as a disenfranchised minority against the appropriation of its neighborhood homeland and culture by powerful outsiders. They have held organizational meetings, tenant’s rights workshops, panel discussions, testimonials and theatrical events to educate and mobilize the immigrant low-income community. Another organization named Friends of Highland Park emerged to contest the development of a transit village along the Metro Gold Line that neighborhood activists felt did not well serve the immigrant residential and business community. These movements have generated significant journalistic reports in the Los Angeles Times and other major online media.[2]

There is a sense of class struggle amidst the relentless economic violence of capitalism reminiscent of Karl Marx and Frederick Engel’s famous description in “The Community Manifesto” of the global power of the bourgeoisie to revolutionize the mode of production and force the capitulation of the proletariat and their cultural traditions until “all that is solid melts into air.” The production of urban space is crucial to the continued expansion of capitalism, yet this process is full of tension and struggle.[3] The contradictions of urban capitalism as a force of creative destruction has been described by David Harvey and Marshall Berman through epic historical cases. Some of these cases include a few from the public works prefect Baron Haussmann and his destruction of dense working-class neighborhoods to create the boulevards in mid-eighteenth century Paris and power broker Robert Moses and his clearing of dense working class communities in New York City in the mid-twentieth century in favor of bridges, intercity expressways, and the opening up of the suburbs.[4] Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and the malevolence of gentrification is described by Jason Hackworth  as the material and symbolic “knife-edge” of neoliberal capitalism amidst the government retrenchment from the Keynesian egalitarian liberalism of the twentieth century.[5] The capitalist city is a main battleground for neoliberal transition as local governments “roll back” Fordist-era housing programs and social services while “rolling forward” post-Fordist incentives for investment and urban entrepreneurialism.[6] Under neoliberal gentrification we see the opposing clash of capitalist struggle between exchange value interests for investors, property owners and state tax revenues versus use value interests for residents, workers and urban inhabitants.

Taking back the boulevard 1: art, activism and gentrification in nela

Northeast LA (NELA) Alliance members stage their first major action Procesión de Testimonios: Evicting Displacement on 3 November 2014 including mock evictions on twenty-two businesses. Protesters can be seen at left with a realtor crossing York Boulevard to the right (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).


The Troubling Side of Gentrification: Displacement, Root Shock, and Neighborhood Trauma

Less visible than the outward economic signs of gentrification is the social uprooting and traumatic displacement process that takes place behind the scenes after new owners and developers have secured their properties and start vacating residents through dramatic rent increases or direct evictions. Even when eviction is legally implemented with relocation stipends, the monies hardly make up for the abrupt involuntary loss of a home and loss of extended family networks that were built up over the years to help low-income immigrants and minorities share child care responsibilities and confront the economic challenges of urban life. In L.A. neighborhoods like Highland Park, which are on the gentrification frontier, the good and bad aspects of the urban growth machine work simultaneously to display the innovative and cruel nature of urban capitalism as a double-edged force of creative destruction. The housing markets in gentrifying areas like NELA reveal how innovative investors and architects build smart and trendy new housing to attract affluent millennial homebuyers of the creative economy and technology sector while removing working-class immigrant and minority families.

In L.A. neighborhoods like Highland Park, which are on the gentrification frontier, the good and bad aspects of the urban growth machine work simultaneously to display the innovative and cruel nature of urban capitalism as a double-edged force of creative destruction.

The impacts of secondary displacement through increases in property value play out more slowly than primary displacement evictions and high rental increases, but they create financial strains on families that further aggravate the physical and mental health of communities. Financial strain and/or displacement can cause chronic stress-related physical and mental illnesses, including hypertension, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. Serial displacement among multi-generational families can lead to a condition of “root shock.” Black and Latino families escaping racial discrimination and political violence carry previous traumatic experiences that can be aggravated by housing displacement.

Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the loss of a community’s multi-family and inter-generational social networks previously built up as emotional and social eco-systems to help low-income minority and immigrant communities survive when confronted by economic challenges and social marginalization. The concept was adapted from the practice of gardening by Dr. Mindy Fullilove, professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University, to describe the experiences of people she interviewed about their displacement in cities like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Roanoke, Virginia. She addresses the concept of “serial displacement” or repeated upheavals caused by disinvestment, gentrification, HOPE VI, mass incarceration, and natural disaster.[7] The concept of root shock helps one understand both the effects of displacement and also formulate ways to mitigate urban trauma and community recovery from natural and man-made disasters.

Taking back the boulevard 2: art, activism and gentrification in nela

“El Capitalista” puppet made by NELA Alliance members in silent procession on 12 December 2014 (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).


Friends of Highland Park vs. the Highland Park Transit Village

Transit oriented development (TOD) is a growing tool of urban public policy to stimulate economic development and housing near mass transit stations like the Highland Park stop on the MTA Gold Line. The City of Los Angeles-owned vacant land is operated by the Department of Transportation as surface parking lots and plans gradually progressed over several years for a transit village of three buildings with eighty residential units comprising twenty market rate condos and sixty affordable apartment housing units. The Highland Park Overlay Zone board approved the project in early 2013 and the L.A. Planning Commission granted developer McCormack Barron Salazar conditional usepermits for taller more densely-built housing which then sparked some outcry and debate in the community with regard to the transit village’s size, aesthetics, congestion, and loss of public parking. The L.A. City Council backed the Planning Commission’s decision for higher density and furthermore approved the project to be released from lengthy review of impact on the environment, traffic and city services.

Community opposition to the project organized its campaign as the Friends of Highland Park and was led by a trio self-described as the “three musketeers,” including business leader Jesse Rosas; Lisa Duardo, a fierce speaker with close ties to the arts community; and Lloyd Cattro who is familiar with environmental issues. The movement gained support from respected N. Figueroa Street business leaders like Miguel Hernandez of Antigua Bread, Carlos Lopez of Las Cazuelas Restaurant and William Yu of California Fashion. Duardo attended legal workshops conducted by Advocates for the Environment jointly sponsored by the Sierra Club at Loyola Marymount University. With counsel from land-use attorney Dean Walraff, the Friends of Highland Park retained fiery attorney Vic Otten to file a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) lawsuit against the transit village. An initial trial court judgment dismissed the CEQA filing. It was reversed by the California Court of Appeal in December 2015, in a decision that set aside the City’s Mitigated Negative Declaration and Notice of Determination and thus required the preparation of an environmental impact review (EIR) that complies with CEQA requirements. Described by Friends of Highland Park as a “David vs. Goliath” victory, the ruling sent City agencies and the developer back to the drawing board. To pay for such legal costs, the Friends of Highland Park fundraised some $30,000 through initiatives at local restaurants and bars, business events, and the NELA Alliance.

Jesse Rosas is the leader of the Northeast Business Association, which represents some fifteen to twenty business owners, a newer constituency than the Highland Park Chamber of Commerce currently led by Yolanda Nogueira that has existed for forty to fifty years, separate from the N. Figueroa Association that represents property owners and the Business Improvement District. Rosas has good business networks through his work on N. Figueroa Street events like the annual Christmas Parade and Highland Park Car Show. He doesn’t believe that the higher-income commuters the transit village would attract will patronize local businesses, which will instead be hurt by two years of construction and the loss of the public parking lots for their long-time customers. He’s highly skeptical of statements from Councilman Gil Cedillo’s office that there will be one-to-one replacement of public parking spots in new subterranean parking since many spots will be dedicated to transit village residents, monthly parking, and commuters. Questions also remain about whether the affordable housing units planned will really be financially viable for low-income households.

Taking back the boulevard 3: art, activism and gentrification in nela

“Housing is a Human Right” projection during the course of silent procession on 12 December 2014 (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).


Eviction Order and Rent Strike at Marmion Royal

Another contentious housing situation emerged right next to the Highland Park Metro Gold Line station at the sixty-unit Marmion Royal apartments. In May 2016, the building sold to Skya Ventures and Gelt Inc., a development company owned by a married couple Gelena Skya and Keith Wasserman, who announced plans to clear the apartments to renovate and rebrand the building as Citizen HLP and increase rents by more than $1,000 a month. Seven families voluntarily relocated, while nineteen were served with evictions. Others felt harassed by water shut-offs. Extended multi-family networks among the tenants are under threat of being broken. The property managers working for the Wassermans, Moss & Company repeatedly told residents they had to leave when their leases expire. The residents were majority working-class Latino/a families and included several Section 8 tenants at risk of homelessness without their housing vouchers. The Marmion Royal was built in 1987 and was not covered by the Los Angeles Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which applies to multi-unit apartments built before 1978, limiting rent increases to three percent and requiring landlords to provide relocation expenses for evicted tenants.[8]

On 19 July 2016, a demonstration of about one hundred people was held next to the Marmion Royal apartment building, led by the NELA Alliance. The Occidental College Students United Against Gentrification (OSUAG) also participated. Adolfo Camacho, a resident for three years at the Marmion Royal and thirty years in Highland Park, said six people would be evicted from his household, including four children. His sister-in-law lived in another apartment. Chris Alvarez, who worked at the KTLA television station in Hollywood, said he would likely have to move to Monrovia or Lancaster and endure a much longer commute to his job. He grew up in Highland Park and had lived fifteen years at the Marmion Royal. He said that he and his wife were seven months pregnant and he fretted about moving when she was in her third trimester. He worried that he would be separated from his mother and sister who lived two blocks away during this crucial time. After more testimonies, the participants proceeded to march in the streets chanting, “Save Our Homes,” and “Housing Now,” to the office of Councilman Gil Cedillo where they demonstrated for a while before returning to the Marmion Royal. Erick Berdejo said, “I grew up here. I’ve been here ten years since the age of nine. We’re decent people, we work to pay rent, and for them to tell us we got to move because we can’t afford the rent ‑ that’s wrong!” David Canecho, a resident for twenty years at the Marmion Royal, said “we’re not the only ones in L.A. going through this. I went to high school in Highland Park then to college at Chico State and came back but now I can’t live here. It’s up to us to stand up and stick together!”

With educational workshops and organizational support from the NELA Alliance, the Los Angeles Tenants Union and legal advocacy from attorney Elena Popp of the Eviction Defense Network, forty-seven of the remaining residents signed a petition to fight their evictions and organize the Marmion Royal Tenants Union. They called for a rent strike to try to pressure the Wassermans into a collective bargaining agreement, putting their rent money into a blind trust while they negotiated with Skya Ventures. Over the next few months demonstrations, testimonials and candlelight vigils helped to publically dramatize the struggle of the Marmion Royal Tenants Union. In August, NELA Alliance sponsored an educational panel at Avenue 50 Studio, an exhibition, a performance and artistic procession through the streets titled, “Dancing Cantos of an Evicted Pueblo.”

Taking back the boulevard 4: art, activism and gentrification in nela

NELA Alliance member Arturo Romo and Lis Barrajas leads other participants in silent procession to La Culebra Park where rites were held burning sage and palo verde to honor the native Tongva who were the original residents of region before their displacement (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).

Fundraising efforts with support from local businesses like Las Cazuelas restaurant helped to raise nearly $8,000 for legal fees and court costs. Some white professional residents came forward to assert they thought management was more willing to negotiate with them on rent increases, giving Elena Popp an avenue to argue for a case of discrimination against the Latino/a and black residents. But in December 2016, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Rupert A. Byrdsong, ruled against a claim of discrimination against five tenants being evicted. The Skya Ventures attorney Jeffrey B. Endler argued that “white people were allowed [to] negotiate, maybe because they were more aggressive” and asked the judge to end the hearing. But Byrdsong allowed the defense to bring in more witnesses before ordering the remaining evictions. Elena Popp implied that there was also class discrimination, saying a representative of Skya Ventures told her the company wanted to bring in “higher-caliber tenants.” But Byrdsong ruled her testimony not admissible since it was akin to a negotiation between the parties. When the hearing resumed, Popp offered a settlement that called on the tenants to leave by 30 January. However, Skya Ventures wanted an earlier date. The firm said it would not ask for unpaid rent. “All we want is possession,” said their attorney Jeffrey Endler.[9]

They do not go down without a fight against their impending dispossession, and they reveal the striking contradictions of the process of urban capitalist accumulation.

The Marmion Royal Tenants Union legal team is appealing the judge’s ruling under the claim it didn’t follow normal procedures of a jury decision. With support from attorney Noah Grynberg of the Los Angeles Center for Community Law and Action, the legal team is negotiating to consolidate the other eighteen cases. Remaining members of the tenants union vowed to continue their support. NELA Alliance members appealed through neighborhood social networks to find new housing for tenants facing eviction. Candlelight vigils helped to nourish their solidarity amidst the trauma of actual or impending displacement during the Christmas holidays. They staged a candlelight vigil at the residence of Gelena Skye and Keith Wasserman in Sherman Oaks on the evening of 30 December 2016. The evictions proceeded into the spring of 2017, however, and the last tenants were out by June 2017. The renovated building is now called Moxie + Clover Apartments.

The struggles of the Marmion Royal Tenants Union ended with the eviction of the final family in June 2017, but the NELA Alliance has kept up its neighborhood activism as it monitors incipient displacement and eviction situations at other multi-family apartment buildings in Highland Park along the N. Figueroa Street and the Metro Gold Line corridor. NELA activists give their support to anti-gentrification struggles in nearby communities like Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and Elysian Park, which exhibits striking investment and gentrification dynamics associated with lively arts scenes, and proximity to the Metro Gold Line and the campaign to revitalize the Los Angeles River. Interaction between activists in different neighborhoods helps generate a broader organizational capacity and political pressure for addressing homelessness and affordable housing policy in an era of continuing federal retreatment from Fordist-era public housing and social services. In the post-Fordist era, local governments increasingly shoulder the burden through neoliberal mechanisms of public/private partnership. The struggles of immigrant and working-class displacement and eviction in Highland Park dramatize the more troubling aspects of City and County of Los Angeles public policies like transit-oriented development and transit villages to generate new housing that is mainly market-rate and unaffordable for the working poor. They do not go down without a fight against their impending dispossession, and they reveal the striking contradictions of the process of urban capitalist accumulation.

The victims of the redevelopment and gentrification process in Highland Park and their supporters protest their right to the city as a touchstone for social inclusion. They assert their sense of ownership over their communities and rights as urban citizens, a cry and demand for political belonging in urban residency rather than national citizenship. They appeal to the sense of collective and human rights. In the words of David Harvey:

But new rights can also be defined: like the right to the city which … is not merely a right of access to what the property speculators and state planners define, but an active right to make the city different, to shape it more in accord with our heart’s desire, and to remake ourselves thereby in a different image.[10]

Taking back the boulevard 5: art, activism and gentrification in nela

Over 200 NELA Alliance members and Highland Park residents demonstrate at the office of Councilman Gil Cedillo following a solidarity rally with the families of the Marmion Royal Apartments and a march through the streets on 18 July 2016 (Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas).

  • All photos are by John Urquiza, a Northeast LA photographer and founder of Sin Turistas photography collective that runs classes, exhibitions and community film screenings in Highland Park. He is also photographer and member of the Northeast LA Alliance that leads protests against gentrification, community organizing for tenants’ rights and artistic documentation of social actions for neighborhood change. His website is http://theironyandtheecstasy.me.

[1] David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012).

[2] Tim Logan, “Highland Park Renters Feel the Squeeze of Gentrification,” Los Angeles Times, 21 December 2014, A1; Nathan Solis, “Highland Park Residents Share Stories of Gentrifiation During Saturday Night Demonstration and Vigil,” Eastsider, 15 December 2014,  www.theeastsiderla.com.

[3] Henri LeFebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1974, reprinted 1991).

[4] Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

[5] Jason Hackworth, The Neoliberal City: Governance, Ideology, and Development in American Urbanism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007).

[6] Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism,’” Antipode 34 (2002): 349-79.

[7] Mindy Fullilove, Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2005).

[8] Doug Smith, “A Flashpoint in L.A.’s Gentrification Drama: Protesting Highland Park Tenants face a Mass Eviction,” Los Angeles Times, 11 October 2016, A1.

[9] Doug Smith, “Judge Rejects Discrimination Clain in Highland Park Evictions,” Los Angeles Times, 14 December 2016.

[10] David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27 (2003): 939-41.

 

Jan Lin is Professor of Sociology at Occidental College. This article is an edited excerpt from Chapter 5 of his book, Taking Back the Boulevard: Art, Activism and Gentrification in Los Angeles (New York University Press, 2019). His stories on neighborhood transition and gentrification and students’ Young Voices features have appeared with KCET-Departures online. This excerpt’s research is drawn from interviews with Lisa Duardo, Jesse Rosas, Miguel Ramos, John Urquiza and Marmion Royal tenants, participant observation at demonstrations and public forums, and newspaper and online media articles.

Copyright: © 2019 Jan Lin. 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 Golden State’s Scientific White Supremacist

Zachary Warma

In their June 2018 report, “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies over one-hundred Confederate symbols that have been removed across the United States in the wake of the 2015 murder of nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the fatal violence perpetuated by white nationalists in 2017 opposing the potential removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.[1] Public markers to the Confederacy—of which 1,740 remain—are coming under heightened scrutiny, driven both by the supportive tweets of Donald Trump and the increasing publicity of white nationalist groups, as well as high-profile removal of monuments, whether sanctioned by official government decree or conducted by activists tired of institutional inaction, as evidenced by the August destruction of the “Silent Sam” statue honoring the Confederacy at the University of North Carolina. Monuments and memorials to the Confederacy, which sprang up after the end of Reconstruction, were intended to rewrite history as well as to reassert the social and political control of white over black Americans. In his speech discussing the 2017 removal of Confederate monuments from New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke of the very specific aims of Confederate memorials: they “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for” and “were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge.”[2]

These symbols honoring the “Lost Cause” are not exclusive to the Deep South. Three days after the chaos in Charlottesville, Los Angeles’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery, better known for hosting summer outdoor movie screenings and its celebrity gravesites, quietly removed a plaque sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy honoring Confederate troops “who have died or may die on the Pacific Coast.” Commenting on the cemetery’s actions, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti remarked, “Public Confederate memorials I think have no place in our nation any more than you would put up a memorial to other acts of hate or division in this country. People can learn that history, but they don’t need to lionize it.”[3] The Hollywood Forever plaque is far from the only reminder of California’s embrace of racial intolerance. The natural and man-made structures honoring Joseph Le Conte that dot California’s landscape are a sobering indicator of how the Sierra Club and the University of California—among the state’s most esteemed institutions—extolled and lionized white supremacists to the benefit of their own image, and how by ignoring the bigotry of their early leaders they are ultimately complicit in fostering the same racially disfigured vision of the past perpetuated by monuments to the Confederacy.

They “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for” and “were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge.”

Born in 1823 in Liberty County, Georgia, professor Joseph Le Conte did not step foot in California until the age of forty-six. Educated at the University of Georgia, New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons (now part of Columbia University), and Harvard University, Le Conte taught at the University of Georgia and South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), where he chaired the Chemistry and Geology Department from 1856 until 1868. It was this opportunity to join his brother John as one of the first hires at the newly formed University of California that ultimately brought Le Conte west. While John served as the University’s first interim president and a professor of physics, Joseph was the university’s first botanist, natural historian, and geologist. Over the course of his three-decade tenure at the University of California, Joseph Le Conte established a national reputation as an academic and public figure. Publishing on a range of subjects, including geology, biology, evolution, and religion, Le Conte attained membership into the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Sciences, of which he served as president in 1892.

Le Conte’s notoriety in post-Civil War America also stemmed from his work as an environmentalist. An enthusiastic outdoorsman, Le Conte joined a Berkeley student trip to Yosemite in 1870, where he first encountered the famed naturalist, John Muir. The two men became close friends, and Le Conte co-founded the Sierra Club with Muir, serving on the club’s Board of Directors from 1892-1898. It was on his tenth Yosemite trip, and the Sierra Club’s first Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows outing, that Joseph Le Conte passed away on 6 July 1901 at the age of seventy-eight.


Imprinting Le Conte on the Natural and Built Environment  

In death, Le Conte was hailed as a visionary academic and thinker. Writing on the Le Conte brothers months after Joseph’s death, John Muir remarked, “Their writings brought them world-wide renown, and their names will live, but far more important is the inspiring, uplifting, enlightening influence they exerted on their students and the community, which, spreading from mind to mind, heart to heart, age to age, in ever widening circles, will go on forever.”[4] Le Conte was memorialized not in words alone—his name would find its way on an array of places and objects across the country, both natural and man-made. Le Conte Glacier in Alaska, Mount Le Conte in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Le Conte Divide in the Sierra National Forest, and Le Conte Falls in Yosemite National Park all are named in his honor.[5] Three years after Le Conte’s death, the Sierra Club opened the Joseph LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park, with a bas-relief of Le Conte proclaiming him a “Scientist and Savant” placed centrally above the fireplace. The University of Georgia’s LeConte Hall, now home to the school’s history department, was dedicated in 1905, and a large portrait of the UGA graduate and former professor hangs in the foyer. The University of South Carolina’s LeConte College is named for both Joseph and his brother John, “nineteenth-century faculty members who were among the most renowned scientists of their day,” according to the school.[6]

Due to the influence of the University of California, Le Conte’s memory remains deeply enshrined in the Golden State. Professor Eugene Hilgard, a colleague and friend at the University of California, wrote that “it was Le Conte through whom the University of California first became known to the outside world as a school and center of science on the western border of the continent; and for a number of years he almost alone kept it in view of the world of science.”[7] Le Conte Hall is home to Berkeley’s Physics Department and was central to the university’s research in atomic science and nuclear weaponry; Le Conte Avenue, which runs a few blocks north of Le Conte Hall, dates to at least 1890; and until recently-renamed this year, LeConte Elementary, one of Berkeley Unified School District’s original schools, less than two miles from the heart of the university. In Los Angeles, a city in which Le Conte neither lived nor taught, Le Conte Avenue divides the University of California Los Angeles campus from Westwood Village,[8] while Le Conte Middle School, a magnet school of the Los Angeles Unified School District, is located in East Hollywood.

To this day, Le Conte’s contributions to the University of California are widely publicized. A biography that appears in near-identical form on the webpages of UC Berkeley’s Department of Integrative Biology, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the Museum of Paleontology claims Le Conte impacted the school “in three ways: he lectured and wrote on geology and on evolution and life of the past, he acquired collections of fossils for the University, and he influenced students greatly with his enthusiasm for learning,”[9] and the Department of Integrative Biology bestows the annual Joseph LeConte Award in Natural History to students who have shown deep interests in natural history.

The numerous memorials and plaudits for Le Conte, from those in his era and our own, omit a central component of the professor’s legacy – as a slave owner and Confederate scientist, a bitter opponent of Reconstruction, and a multi-decade peddler of “scientific” racism, Joseph Le Conte spent the entirety of his life advocating and advancing the cause of white supremacy.


Slave-Owning Family and the Instruction of Louis Agassiz

Joseph Le Conte was born, raised, and educated in a world of racial inequality. Le Conte’s childhood home, The Woodmanston plantation in Liberty County, Georgia, held in his estimation roughly two hundred enslaved persons. Writing in his memoirs about his father Louis, Le Conte notes, “The negroes were strongly attached to him, and proud of calling him master. He cared not only for their physical but also for their moral and religious welfare…. There never was a more orderly, nor apparently a happier, working class than the negroes of Liberty County as I knew them in my boyhood.”[10] The image of docile, contented slaves is consistent with Le Conte’s gauzy image of antebellum Georgia—“I linger with especial delight on this early plantation life, far from town and the busy hum of men; a life that has passed forever. It will live for a time in the memory of a few, and then only in history. It was, indeed, a very paradise for boys.”

While Le Conte first studied at the University of Georgia and the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, it was his fifteen months at Harvard that he credited with his “second and higher intellectual birth,” thanks to the tutelage and instruction of principally one man—Louis Agassiz. A noted intellectual of the nineteenth century, the Swiss-born zoologist was months into his position as a professor of natural history at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School when Le Conte arrived in Cambridge in August 1850. According to Le Conte’s biographer Lester Stephens, Le Conte “eventually claimed that ‘more than any other’ person, Agassiz had ‘inspired’ his subsequent life.”[11] The two men spent numerous hours together daily, traveled on field expeditions to New York and Key West, and were friends until Agassiz’s death in 1873.

While making major strides in the classification and cataloguing of animal species, Louis Agassiz also pushed pseudo-scientific claims to support the idea that blacks and whites had separate origins, and later, that blacks were a distinct, inferior species from whites.[12] In an 1847 lecture in Charleston, South Carolina, Agassiz claimed, “The brain of the Negro is that of the imperfect brain of a seventh month’s infant in the womb of a White.”[13] While touring slave plantations around Columbia, South Carolina in March 1850, Agassiz commissioned daguerreotypes of seven enslaved persons, all naked, sitting or standing, whom he had personally selected. The intent of the project was to serve as “evidence” of Agassiz’s racial theories. Brian Wallis, writing in American Art, notes the daguerreotypes “were designed to analyze the physical differences between European whites and African blacks, but at the same time they were meant to prove the superiority of the white race.”[14] Agassiz’s efforts to deploy “scientific” principles as a means of supporting discrimination and white supremacy would echo in his star pupil’s later writings.

The intent of the project was to serve as “evidence” of Agassiz’s racial theories. Brian Wallis, writing in American Art, notes the daguerreotypes “were designed to analyze the physical differences between European whites and African blacks, but at the same time they were meant to prove the superiority of the white race.”


The Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau, and Opposition to Reconstruction

During the Civil War, Joseph Le Conte lent his full support and services to the cause of the Confederacy. While South Carolina was debating secession in December 1860, Le Conte was chair of Chemistry and Geology department at South Carolina College in Columbia. In his memoirs, Le Conte reverently recalled the proceedings – the Convention was “the gravest, ablest, and most dignified body of men I ever saw brought together. They were fully aware of the extreme gravity of their action.”[15] Due to enlistment and South Carolina’s draft, the college’s enrollment dragged until instruction was suspended in 1862. While Le Conte continued his academic studies, he longed to aid in the war efforts. “The College was suspended; I must do something,” Le Conte reminisced. “I felt that I must do something in support of the cause that absorbed every feeling.”[16] In 1863, Le Conte served as a chemist aiding in the manufacturing of medicinal products before being appointed to the Confederate Nitre and Munitions Bureau, in which his brother John also served. Using his former laboratory at South Carolina College, Le Conte became one of the select scientists charged with inspecting nitre caves and beds across the Confederacy for the purpose of manufacturing gunpowder.[17] The academic backgrounds of the Le Conte brothers were put to work for the physical production of the South’s war-making capacity.[18]

The end of the Civil War was a bleak period for the Le Conte family. Writing in her diary in late February 1865, seventeen-year-old Emma Le Conte, Joseph’s eldest child, lamented, “We have lost everything, but if all this—negroes, property—all could be given back a hundredfold, I would not be willing to go back to them. I would rather endure any poverty than live under Yankee rule… anything but live as one with Yankees—that word in my mind is a synonym for all that is mean, despicable and abhorrent.”[19] While Joseph Le Conte managed to evade capture from William Sherman’s Union troops advancing into South Carolina (an experience he chronicled that was posthumously published by the University of California in 1937), his brother John was captured, and ultimately paroled. Emma Le Conte recounts that after his release, John, the future President of the University of California, threatened a Union officer with continued violence if the South was vanquished. “Well, suppose we defeat and disperse his (Lee’s) army?’ ‘I suppose then we will have to resort to guerrilla warfare.’ The officer looked surprised and shocked.”[20] The Le Contes would find some cause for celebration in 1865, however, with the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. “We were all in a tremor of excitement,” Emma wrote. “At home it was the same…. The first feeling I had when the news was announced was simply gratified revenge. The man we hated has met his proper end.”[21] Writing twenty-four years after the end of the Civil War, Joseph Le Conte would still describe the rebellion in near mythic-terms: “There was never was a war in which were more thoroughly enlisted the hearts of the whole people—men, women, and children—than were those of the South in this. To us it was literally a life and death struggle for national existence.”[22]

It was the onset of Reconstruction and its attempts at racial equality—which Le Conte bitterly opposed—that ultimately led to his arrival in California. In 1866, South Carolina College was reopened as the University of South Carolina. Under the auspices of the state’s racially diverse legislature, the university opened its doors to all students regardless of race, and earned the distinction of being the only public university in the Reconstruction South to achieve full integration, boasting black Boards of Trustees, black professors, and by 1876 a predominantly black student body.[23] Le Conte, who had resumed teaching at the university, found the pending changes to the university a moral affront. In a letter to his sister-in-law about the actions of the state legislature, Le Conte wrote, “A bill has been introduced by one of the animals, Sarspartas by name, a negro, the purport of which is to declare the chairs of this University vacant.”[24] Le Conte’s daughter Caroline, providing the introduction to ‘Ware Sherman, her father’s journal from the last months of the Civil War, recounts his sentiments toward the transformation of the university: “The South Carolina Legislature, through its negro board of trustees, was taking the first steps to declare the chairs vacant and to convert the University into a school for illiterate negroes. Now, indeed, emigration was imperative: England, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, were all discussed in turn.”[25] The Le Conte brothers, having difficulty obtaining employment due to their work for the Confederacy, considered fleeing the United States rather than teach at a school that admitted non-white students. Even months before his death, Le Conte’s disdain for Reconstruction remained: “The iniquity of the carpet-bag government was simply inexpressible. The sudden enfranchisement of the negro without qualification was the greatest political crime ever perpetrated by any people, as is now admitted by all thoughtful men.”[26]

With assistance from powerful friends, the Le Contes obtained employment outside of the Reconstruction South, courtesy of the recently formed University of California. Louis Agassiz, Le Conte’s former mentor, along with Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Benjamin Silliman, the founder of the American Journal of Science, among others, wrote in support of the brothers’ candidacies, with John being the very first elected member of the University of California faculty in November 1868, and Joseph less than a month later. It was the University of California, recalled Caroline LeConte, which “when every worthwhile academic door was closed against them, saved the LeConte brothers from exile to a foreign land.”[27] Three years after the end of the Civil War, the University of California welcomed with open arms two slave-owning Confederates scientists to help lead the new institution.


Le Conte’s “Scientific” White Supremacy

Firmly ensconced at Berkeley, Joseph Le Conte used the imprimatur of the University of California and his academic standing to repeatedly advocate for the disenfranchisement and repression of communities of color. In “The Genesis of Sex” published in the December 1879 edition of Popular Science and “The Effect of Mixture of Races on Human Progress” in the April 1880 Berkeley Quarterly, Le Conte builds upon the ideas articulated by his mentor Louis Agassiz and argues that sexual reproduction in plants and animals explains the perils of racial intermixing. “I regard the light-haired blue-eyed Teutonic and the negro as the extreme types,” writes Le Conte, “and their mixture as producing the worst effects. The mixture of the Spanish and Indian in Mexico and South America has produced a physically hardy and prolific race; but I think it will be acknowledged that the general result on social progress has not been encouraging. It seems probable that the mixture of extreme races produces and inferior result.”[28]

In his 1889 article “The South Revisited” and his 1892 lecture turned book The Race Problem in the South, Joseph Le Conte combines his scientific racism with his nostalgia for the antebellum South and animosity toward Reconstruction to present an unambiguous case for white supremacy. In Le Conte’s view, the institution of slavery, for which the South was not responsible—“the slaves were not brought in her ships, but in those of other countries of other parts of our own country”[29]— and with its planter class “a kind of aristocracy,”[30] was beneficial for African Americans, who were uplifted by their interactions with whites. “Not only has the Negro been elevated to his present condition by contact with the white race,” asserts Le Conte, “but he is sustained in that position wholly by the same contact, and whenever that support is withdrawn he relapses again to his primitive state.”[31] The political ramifications of this racial distinction is clear to Le Conte: “The Negro race as a while is certainly at present incapable of self-government and unworthy of the ballot; and their participation without distinction in public affairs can only result in disaster.”[32] Therefore, the South “is solid for self-government by the white race, as being the self-governing race and as a whole the only self-governing race.”[33]

To enforce white-rule, Le Conte unreservedly called for the suppression of black voting rights. Writing little more than a decade after the end of Reconstruction—the “brief reign of the carpet-baggers sustained by Negro votes after the war” that produced “disastrous results”[34]— Le Conte viewed the enacting of property and education requirements for voters as “perfectly just and perfectly rational.” Le Conte concedes such restrictions would allow for some black voters, “but only such as ought to vote.”[35] Given the supposed inherent inferiority of blacks, and the policy consequences of Reconstruction, the limitation of voting rights strikes Le Conte as justifiable policy. To achieve the ends of white domination, Le Conte rationalized the use of racial violence and the abrogation of the Reconstruction Amendments, passed specifically to protect voters of color. Le Conte expressed little concern for violence wrought against blacks exercising their right to vote, and found that kind of violence to be in service of the greater good. “Doubtless intimidation has been used in the South as elsewhere; perhaps more than elsewhere, for the motive was stronger—viz., the existence of a civilized community.”[36] As for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, intended to secure the rights of newly freed blacks, should those laws conflict with the South’s “right” of white domination, writes Le Conte, “so much worse for the fundamental law and the constitutional amendments, for it shows that these are themselves in conflict with the still more fundamental laws of Nature, which are the laws of God. If it be so, then the South is very sorry, but it can’t be helped.”[37]

Throughout his works, Le Conte asserted that his racism is grounded in Darwinism and evolutionary science. “The laws determining the effects of contact of species… among animals may be summed up under the formula, ‘The struggle for life and survival of the fittest.’ It is vain to deny that the same law is applicable to the races of man also,”[38] asserts Le Conte. White supremacy, therefore, is simply following the laws of nature. “Given two races widely different in intellectual and moral elevation, especially in the capacity for self-government, in other words very different in grade of race-evolution…the inevitable result will be, must be, that the higher race will assume control and determine the policy of the community.”[39] Bigotry, in the view of Le Conte, is simply an extension of evolutionary self-preservation. “Race-prejudice, or race-repulsion, to use a stronger term,” writes Le Conte, “is itself not a wholly irrational feeling. It is probably an instinct necessary to preserve the blood purity of the higher race.”[40]


Le Conte’s Legacy Revisited

In late 2015, Aaron Mair and Michael Brune, the then-President and Executive Director, respectively, of the Sierra Club, wrote to the Director of the National Park Service with a request—that the NPS change the historic and common name of a National Historic Landmark located in Yosemite National Park, the LeConte Memorial Lodge. The Lodge, which has been operated by Sierra Club volunteers since its 1904 construction by the club, served as Yosemite’s first visitor center. The Sierra Club’s Board of Directors voted in October 2015, however, to request that Joseph Le Conte’s name be removed from the center. The reasoning for the request—the increased awareness of Le Conte’s racist ideology. “A generation or two ago,” writes Mair and Brune, “this aspect of Mr. Le Conte’s legacy was virtually unknown to the public. More recently, however, the public is beginning to learn more about Le Conte’s racial politics, and public pressure is mounting to change the name of a number of places that were originally named in his honor.”[41] With greater understanding of Le Conte’s legacy, Mair and Brune note, “those who visit the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley are more likely to be horrified and offended to learn that this public building is named in honor” of the professor. [42]

PSM_V12_D270_Joseph_Le_Conte2

Missing from Mair and Brune’s letter is even a tacit acknowledgement of the Sierra Club’s role in Le Conte’s racism being “virtually unknown.” Mair and Brune’s letter notes that in the wake of the 2015 murder of nine Charleston churchgoers at the hands of a white supremacist, U.C. Berkeley’s Black Student Union called on the school to change the name of Le Conte Hall. Berkeley residents raised the question with Berkeley Unified School District officials about renaming LeConte Elementary. Mirroring the letter, the Sierra Club webpage addressing Le Conte and the Lodge renaming claims his “racist theories came to light in 2015.”[43] Contrary to the organization’s assertions, Le Conte’s racism did not somehow disappear after his death 117 years ago. In addition to his ample writing output while living, Le Conte’s chronicle of his flight from Sherman’s army, ‘Ware Sherman, was published in 1937 by the University of California Press; his daughter’s Civil War-era diary was first published in 1957; The Race Problem in the South was reprinted in 1969; and a biography of his life was released in 1982. On a biography page linked to “People Important to John Muir,” the organization even provided an online link to Le Conte’s autobiography. But the Sierra Club was not passively ignoring Le Conte’s racism—they were propagating a highly sanitized version of his life that scrubbed away any stains of bigotry.

On 3 July 2004, the Sierra Club hosted the centennial and rededication of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park. Dr. Bonnie Gisel, curator of the Lodge and a John Muir scholar, provided the opening remarks. The Lodge, Dr. Gisel noted, was “built upon the worldview of Dr. Joseph LeConte, his thoughtful scientific study, and love for the natural world.” A “beloved” academic, Le Conte was “passionate yet simple. He possessed an articulate unaffected character, dedicated to making his ideas animate and forceful in the practical world.”[44]On hand for the festivities was a Le Conte re-enactor, and Le Conte’s great-grandson. As for providing a fuller picture of Le Conte’s background, a “Historical Profile” produced by the Sierra Club Member Services that linked to the Centennial Celebration webpage  mentioned, “During the Civil War, he taught chemistry and geology at South Carolina College. After the war, because ‘rebels’ were not eligible for employment, Le Conte traveled west and, with his brother John, took part in the organization of the University of California.”[45] Joseph Le Conte, according to the Sierra Club, was not a former slave owner who peddled racist demagoguery masked as evolutionary science, but rather “one of the most respected scientists in the United States in his day.”[46] There is a reason why, as Mair and Brune noted in their 2015 letter, Le Conte’s repugnant views “were virtually unknown”—the Sierra Club promulgated an incomplete and hagiographic vision of their bigoted co-founder.

Near the end of their 2015 letter to the National Park Service, Mair and Brune take great pains to differentiate Le Conte’s legacy from other monuments honoring notable Confederates, on the basis of Le Conte’s continued advocacy for white supremacy decades after the end of the Civil War: “Changing the name of the Sierra Club’s lodge would not set a precedent that calls into question every image of the Confederate flag or every statue of Robert E. Lee. Those are very different.”[47] Nearly three years later, these words haven taken on a deeply ironic twist. While the Sierra Club strove to separate Le Conte from other notable Confederates, the 2017 violence in Charlottesville tied to the city’s statue of Robert E. Lee has rightfully called into question every public memorial to the Confederacy, including those honoring Joseph Le Conte.

Both Joseph Le Conte’s decades of scientific racism and the Confederate monuments built across America after Reconstruction were components of the national program of “reconciliation,” which in the second half of the nineteenth-century sought to strip the Civil War of its explicit racial implications in favor of a narrative the valorized the struggles of both North and South. In Race and Reunion, his seminal work chronicling the struggle over national remembrance of the war, David Blight outlines the centrality of the South’s racist historical revisionism in dictating national reconciliation, as well as the collective memory around the Civil War. “The Lost Cause,” writes Blight, “became an integral part of national reconciliation by dint of sheer sentimentalism, by political argument, and by recurrent celebrations and rituals. For most white Southerners, the Lost Cause evolved into a language of vindication and renewal, as well as an array of practices and public monuments thigh which they could solidify both their Southern pride and their Americanness. By the 1890s, Confederate memories… offered an asset of conservative traditions by which the entire country could gird itself against racial, political, and industrial disorder… it also armed those determined to control, if not destroy, the rise of black people in the social order.”[48] Le Conte’s academic career, similarly to monumental horseback statues of Lee, sought of to recast the Confederacy from a rebellion dedicated to the preservation of slavery to a noble “Lost Cause,” and both were explicit in their efforts to project white hegemony over terrorized communities of color. The Sierra Club and the University of California may not have erected monuments physically analogous to UNC’s Silent Sam or the statues in New Orleans or Charlottesville, but by elevating an incomplete legacy of Joseph Le Conte, they participated in the very same pernicious revisionism that enabled the flourishing of white supremacy in California and across the country. The Sierra Club leadership was mistaken—there is no difference between continuing to honor Joseph Le Conte or any Confederate leader.

In the three years that have passed since the transmission of the Sierra Club’s letter, Le Conte’s bigotry has come under greater scrutiny, and organizations have sought to distance themselves from his views. The LeConte Memorial Lodge was successfully renamed “Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center,” with the Sierra Club publicly stating “it is unacceptable to continue to have a public education center in the park named in honor of a man who advocated for theories about the inferiority of nonwhite races. To do so would be counter both to our values and to our desire to promote inclusivity in our parks.”[49] In May 2018 LeConte Elementary was rechristened Sylvia Mendez Elementary after the civil rights activist whose family’s legal action ended segregation in California’s public education system in 1947, predating the Brown v. Board Supreme Court ruling.[50]

In the wake of the 2015 protests, former Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks convened “the Building Naming Task Force,” whose April 2017 report recommended the university “promptly begin the process of revising the UC Berkeley Principles for Naming.”[51] The report, however, mentioned Le Conte Hall only once.[52] Under continued criticism for their ponderous response, the now-chancellor Carol Christ setup in March 2018 a twelve-member Building Name Review Committee.[53] Proposals, which the committee will review before sending recommendations to the chancellor, must “explicitly address” whether the “the legacy of the namesake is fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University.”[54]

These moves by the University of California, the Sierra Club, and Berkeley Unified School District are positive steps in acknowledging their past support for Le Conte, but they will ultimately be inadequate if no serious effort is undertaken to properly explain why they chose to honor a noted white supremacist for decades. To quietly blot Le Conte from the history of California’s premier institutions would be a pernicious act of historical revisionism not dissimilar to Le Conte’s efforts to whitewash slavery from the Civil War. The Georgetown Slavery Archive chronicling the school’s sale of 227 African slaves, Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice Report, and National Geographic’s recent work documenting their history of racism offer examples of institutions fully grappling with their past that both the Sierra Club and the University of California should look to in considering how to properly contextualize their complicity in upholding some of the most malignant strains of racism embedded in this country. Removing Joseph Le Conte from a college lecture hall or a Yosemite cabin is simply not enough—Le Conte’s life and legacy are a powerful testament to California’s deep intertwining with the rest of American history. Better understanding Le Conte’s role in early California helps to illuminate uncomfortable realities about historical revisionism and white supremacy that affect us to the modern day.

Le Conte’s life and legacy are a powerful testament to California’s deep intertwining with the rest of American history. Better understanding Le Conte’s role in early California helps to illuminate uncomfortable realities about historical revisionism and white supremacy that affect us to the modern day.

The Sierra Club and University of California’s veneration of Joseph Le Conte is unfortunately not an aberration within California. Eugene Hilgard, Le Conte’s fellow Berkeley professor and Confederate scientist, has streets named for him in Berkeley and Los Angeles; Louis Agassiz, Le Conte’s mentor and early pioneer in scientific racism, is honored with a statue prominently displayed at Stanford University, atop a building named after another of Agassiz’s pupils, Stanford’s first president David Starr Jordan, who was a major force in the American eugenics movement. If California, and its leading institutions, truly wish to serve a model of inclusivity for the rest of the country, we must topple our monuments to men like Joseph Le Conte, and the numerous others like him who spent their lives advocating for a racial hierarchy that has denied untold number of Californians their basic human and Constitutional rights. In the end, we must understand why we celebrated these men in the first place and for so long.


Notes

[1] “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 2018. https://www.splcenter.org/20180604/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy.

[2] Mitch Landrieu, “Mitch Landrieu’s Speech on the Removal of Confederate Monuments in New Orleans,” The New York Times, 23 May 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/23/opinion/mitch-landrieus-speech-transcript.html.

[3] Logan Byrnes, “Confederate monument at Hollywood Forever Cemetery removed,” Fox 11 LA, 15 August 2017, http://www.foxla.com/news/local-news/274054184-story.

[4] John Muir Bibliography Resource, “Reminiscences of Joseph LeConte” (1901), John Muir Bibliography, 213, http://scholarlycommons.pacific.edu/jmb/267.

[5] Ann Lange, “The Peaks and Professors—University Names in the High Sierras,” Chronicle of the University of California (Spring 2000): 95, http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/uchistory/pubs_resources/journals/chronicle/issue3/Lage.pdf.

[6] “University of South Carolina University Map–LeConte College,” University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, 2002, http://www.sc.edu/uscmap/bldg/leconte.html.

[7] Eugene Hilgard, “Biographical Memoir of Joseph Le Conte 1823-1901,” National Academy of Sciences (18 April 1907): 211, http://www.nasonline.org/publications/biographical-memoirs/memoir-pdfs/le-conte-joseph.pdf.

[8]  Herbert B. Foster, The Role of the Engineer’s Office in the Development of the University of California Campuses (Berkeley: University of California, 1960), 120-121, California Digital Library, https://archive.org/stream/roleengineeroff00fostrich#page/n285/mode/2up.

[9] “Integrative Biology Department Awards,” UC Regents | Integrative Biology, https://ib.berkeley.edu/undergrad/departmentawards.

[10] Joseph Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte: Edited by William Dallam Armes (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1903), 12-13, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1998, http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/leconte/leconte.html.

[11] Lester Stephens, Joseph LeConte: Gentle Prophet of Evolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), 34.

[12] Louis Menard, “Morton, Agassiz, and the Origins of Scientific Racism of the United States,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 34 (Winter 2001-2002): 112.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9 (Summer 1995): 40.

[15] Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, 180.

[16] Ibid., 183-184.

[17] Ibid., 184.

[18] Eugene Hilgard, Le Conte’s future colleague at Berkeley, was engaged in similar work in Mississippi, assisting in the Confederate defenses of Vicksburg. Edward P.F. Rose, C. Paul Nathanail, Geology and Warfare: Examples of the Influence of Terrain and Geologists on Military Operations (London: Geological Society of Science, 2000), 88.

[19] Emma LeConte, When the World Ended: The Diary of Emma Le Conte (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 66.

[20] Ibid., 76.

[21] Ibid., 93.

[22] Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, 181.

[23] “Reconstruction 1865-1873,” University of South Carolina Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, https://www.sa.sc.edu/omsa/1865-1873-reconstruction.

[24] Caroline LeConte, “Introduction,” in Joseph Le Conte, Ware Sherman: A Journal of Three Months’ Personal Experiences in the Last Days of the Confederacy: With an Introductory Reminiscence by His Daughter Caroline LeConte (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1937), xxiii.

[25] Ibid., xvii.

[26] Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, 238.

[27] Caroline LeConte, “Introduction,” xxx.

[28] Joseph Le Conte, “The Effect of Mixture of Races on Human Progress,” Fortnightly Club: Berkeley. Berkeley Quarterly: A Journal of Social Science 1 (April 1880): 100-101, HathiTrust Digital Library, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.31175023737573;view=1up;seq=91.

[29] Joseph Le Conte. The Race Problem in the South (Miami: Mnemosyne Publishing, 1969), 354.

[30] Joseph Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” The Overland Monthly, Volume XIV, Second Series, 79 (July 1889): 24, Making of America, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moajrnl/ahj1472.2-14.079/37.

[31] Le Conte, The Race Problem in the South, 367.

[32] Ibid., 376.

[33] Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” 29.

[34] Le Conte, The Race Problem in the South, 364.

[35] Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” 30.

[36] Ibid., 376.

[37] Ibid., 364.

[38] Ibid., 359.

[39] Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” 27.

[40] Le Conte, The Race Problem in the South, 365.

[41] Letter from Aaron Mair and Michael Bruce to Jonathan Jarvis and Stephanie Toothman, 2015, p. 2. The Sierra Club, http://www.sierraclub.org/sites/www.sierraclub.org/files/program/documents/LeConte%20Letter.pdf.

[42] Ibid.

[43] “Dr. Joseph LeConte,” The Sierra Club Yosemite Heritage Conservation Center, http://www.sierraclub.org/yosemite-heritage-center/dr-joseph-leconte.

[44] Bonnie Johanna Gisel. “Remarks at the LeConte Memorial Lodge Rededication Ceremony, 3 July 2004,” The Sierra Club, https://vault.sierraclub.org/education/leconte/centennial/rededication/bonnie_gisel_opening.asp.

[45] “Joseph Le Conte Sierra Club Historical Profile,” The Sierra Club, https://vault.sierraclub.org/education/leconte/pdf/joseph_leconte_factsheet.pdf.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Letter from Aaron Mair and Michael Bruce to Jonathan Jarvis and Stephanie Toothman (2015), 2.

[48] David Blight, Race and Reunion–The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 266.

[49] “History of the LeConte Memorial Lodge,” The Sierra Club, https://www.sierraclub.org/yosemite-heritage-center/history.

[50] Cade Johnson, “Le Conte Elementary renamed after Sylvia Mendez, a key figure in California desegregation.” The Daily Californian, 25 May 2018, http://www.dailycal.org/2018/05/25/le-conte-elementary-school-renamed-sylvia-mendez-key-figure-california-desegregation/.

[51] Revati Thatte, “‘Reckoning with that history’: UC Berkeley revisits concerns over controversial building names,” The Daily Californian, 28 August 2017, http://www.dailycal.org/2017/08/28/campus-revisits-controversial-building-names/.

[52] University of California, Berkeley, “Building Naming Project Task Force Summary Report and Recommendations,” April 2017, https://diversity.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/building_naming_project_task_force_report_final_4-3-2017.pdf.

[53] Ella Colbert, “‘Histories of racism, colonialism and exclusion’: UC Berkeley considers changing controversial building names,” The Daily Californian, 22 March 2018, http://www.dailycal.org/2018/03/22/uc-berkeley-moves-forward-attempts-change-controversial-building-names/.

[54] “Building Name Review Committee–Submit a Proposal,” UC Berkeley Office of the Chancellor, https://chancellor.berkeley.edu/building-name-review-committee/submit.

 

Zachary Warma is a graduate of Stanford University, where some of his fondest memories were the hours spent as an Assistant Student Archivist for Stanford’s Department of Special Collections, compiling a fraternity’s recently donated historical papers. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he works in political polling and strategic communications.

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

 

Articles

Policing an Internal Border

Max Felker-Kantor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Multiracial Metropolis and the Immigration Crisis

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

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

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


From Immigrant Crime Victims to Criminal Aliens

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

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

image 1.jpg

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

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

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

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

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


Police Discretion and Limits on Immigration Enforcement

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The War on Crime as Immigration Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

image3


Policing Race and Citizenship Today

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Interviews

Locked-Up Vietnamese California

Interview-1

Tin Nguyen
Bidhan Chandra Roy

Editor’s Note: The Vietnamese diaspora comprises a significant population among California’s immigrant communities. For some of these, the trauma of involuntary migration and the subsequent necessity to negotiate Vietnamese and American identities did not lead to enriching new experiences or cultural formations. A less visible demographic than those currently celebrated by food, literary, or cultural critics today are the Vietnamese Americans currently incarcerated in California’s vast prison system. Not long ago, almost 65% of California’s Asian and Pacific Islander prison population was comprised of either immigrants or refugees, and Vietnamese Americans represented the largest segment of the Asian and Pacific Islander California prison demographic at 22%.[1] This constitutes a significant number of Vietnamese Americans currently incarcerated in California—a fact remaining largely unknown to many Californians.

One such person, for whom the trauma of migration and the negotiation of identities in California produced a path to prison is Tin Nguyen, who is currently serving a “Life Without the Possibility of Parole” sentence at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster. As a former Vietnamese gang member, Tin is now a student in Cal State LA’s BA program at Lancaster, as well as a published writer. Boom editorial board member Bidhan Chandra Roy sat down with Tin over three meetings to discuss his childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam as a child in the 1970s, his role in establishing a new wave of Vietnamese street gangs in Southern California in the 1990s, and his hard-fought transformation into the man he is today. Since recording equipment is not allowed in the prison during the interview, Tin wrote up his responses to the questions following the three meetings.



Boom
: Can you tell us about your experiences traveling from Vietnam to California as a child in the 1970s? What do you remember of that journey? Do you ever recall these memories today?

Tin: At 145 pounds and thirty-two years of age, I was standing in front of the ‘C’ section shower in Building 3 on a maximum-security prison yard. A group of muscular, heavyset Crip members surrounded me, disputing for a shower that none of us own; really, the State of California owned the shower. I knew if I didn’t back down, I could expect at the very least a severe beating, and quite likely, a knife to the gut or a sliced throat. Yet I stood there, at the risk of my own life, because this shower was claimed by the Asians; the marking of our territory. At that moment, I thought, “So this is how I’m going to die… this is how my life sentence was going to end….”

In that moment, I couldn’t help but rapidly wonder, “How did I get here? What happened to the once little Vietnamese boy who pulled his small red wagon along the streets of Pomona and sold flowers to help his mother buy milk for his baby brother?” How did that innocent kid become a monster now tagged P24706?

At that moment, I thought, “So this is how I’m going to die… this is how my life sentence was going to end….”

I remember the boat journey in the late ’70s as flashes of images. There is an image of my godparents hugging me tight; through their tears, they tried to act as if everything was normal. I guess, because of the tension in Vietnam, they didn’t want any suspicion of what was going to happen, an attempt to escape Vietnam. Then there are images of my mother under the cover of darkness passing—or should I say, throwing (my mother would disapprove of this characterization)—me from boat to boat. Thinking of how our boat sped away from two other boats, I remember the word, “pirates,” repeated on everyone’s lips and a throng of rowdy men with all sorts of objects in their hands for weapons.

I remember us all on the boat’s roof, bowing our heads, and me trying to look over, seeing for the first time, men with pale skin standing on the deck of a large ship. We begged for their assistance, to no avail; they just passed by leaving us to fend for ourselves in the great ocean.

Then our boat finally landed. At the island where I have the fondest memories, images and feelings of happiness, swimming all day and following my brother on the shore as the tide was low, catching crabs and fishes. After that, I remember feeling frightened on a plane as I encountered people of different ethnicities, on our way to California.

Scan 2017-7-27 22.51.41


Boom
: What was it like for you growing up in Pomona during the 1980s and 1990s?

Tin: In Pomona, everything was different. In second grade, I was the only Vietnamese kid in class, and not speaking a word of English, I hated school. Kids can be cruel. Yet, the constant taunts of “ching-chong,” “jap,” and “dirty gook,” were the least of my miseries. Because they wanted to test my kung fu, I was punched in the throat and smacked on the back of my head during long walks home from school. To this day, I still have a vivid memory of being run over by a bike—my books were everywhere, I was facedown, and a BMX wheel was on my back, pinning me to ground, while the guy snickered, “You should’ve gotten out my way,” and spit on me. He then rode over me. I cried as I picked up my stuff off the ground, while other kids walked by and laughed, but no one helped. I cried all the way home, and then some. I thought it was my fault for being in his way, but then it occurred to me that all his friends had rode around me with plenty of room. That’s when a spark of anger ignited within me. But that anger from those physical discomforts didn’t compare to what ultimately fueled my anger with a real hate.

What truly fueled my anger was the thought of my family being subjected to the same abuse and discrimination. I remember my older sister sitting in the schoolyard lunch area crying, while other Vietnamese kids were making fun of her. What made this especially painful was the American kids were laughing about how they’d gotten us to turn on each other for their amusement. When I was nine or ten years old, I tried to help an older Vietnamese gentleman who didn’t speak English. There was a misunderstanding at a store, where the sales clerk was accusing the Vietnamese man, hurling crude comments at him, like, “You gook! You’re a thief, coming to the US just to steal and cause trouble. You should’ve stayed in Vietnam.” I remember a feeling of heavy degradation. With my broken English, I attempted to serve as a translator and tried to explain that the Vietnamese man had a receipt. But it was no use. The clerk kept ranting and ended up reducing the Vietnamese man to tears. From that experience, I had the sinking realization that my parents must be suffering similar indignities.

Once I was sitting outside of my older sister’s bedroom door, I heard her crying as she told my cousin how an African-American woman had mistreated her at the college’s financial aid office. I don’t quite recall the exact words, but I do remember clearly the feelings of anger and hate. Hurting me was one thing, but hurting my family was another matter. What made it worse was the helplessness I felt to do anything about it. This is the reason why I’m very protective of my little sister.

I couldn’t claim I was Vietnamese because I barely spoke Vietnamese, and I couldn’t say I was American because I wasn’t born here and barely spoke proper English.

I suppose all these external hardships contributed to who I eventually became, but no less significant were the internal dynamics of my family. Let me start by acknowledging that my father was a very good man who loved his children and always sacrificed for his family. Yet, there were a number of factors that enabled his violent behavior. First, he was raised in a traditional culture where the father’s words are absolute and indisputable, and corporal punishment was the norm. Back in Vietnam, my father was a person of some importance and social standing, so for him, it was a letdown being in America—after losing everything and making all the sacrifices that he did—to become a nobody who had to rely on his wife and whose children wouldn’t even listen to him. I can only imagine how this ate away at his pride, driving him to the edge. Typical days in our house had fights and arguments; I don’t remember a happy moment at home. The Christmas tree tumbled a few times every Christmas. During the year, my mother would vigorously defend her children from her husband’s wrath, after she’d worked all day to put food on the table. Even though my father never made a fist, he did freely use the backhand, the front smack, the belt, the telephone cord, the clothes hanger, and my own favorite—the chopsticks, with a hand full of them, they hurt like hell. I remember like yesterday… I was huddled in the kitchen corner while my mother used her petite body to shield me from being hit by an inch-thick stick as she told my father in Vietnamese: “you’re not going to hit my son with that.” But this was the Vietnamese way, right? Our culture? In such moments, I envied my American friends.

I think what made things worse was that I didn’t know where I belonged, who I was. I couldn’t claim I was Vietnamese because I barely spoke Vietnamese, and I couldn’t say I was American because I wasn’t born here and barely spoke proper English. I felt trapped between two generations of immigrants, one who knew they’re Vietnamese, and one who knew they’re American. My father pushed me to read more and to keep up with my sister in school, and when I couldn’t, I was “dumber than a cow” (English translation). During times when I could, I wasn’t “dumber,” but merely “dumb as a cow.” Either way, I was always dumb. This wasn’t just my father’s assessment, it was everyone’s. I guess they hoped I’d at least be good with my hands. To my mother though, I was always good and smart, but her opinion wasn’t enough. So I ended up with low self-esteem, insecure, lost, and filled with anger and hate.

Scan 2017-7-27 23.33.19[1]


Boom
: How did this childhood trauma pave the way for you joining a gang? How did you see Vietnamese gangs begin to proliferate in South California during your adolescence, and what attracted you to join one?

Tin: In America, the first Vietnamese generation’s youth trend was “New Wave,” with its tight pants, pointy shoes, and spiky hair, and dancing to European bands like Modern Talking, CC Catch, and Bad Boys Blue. With no one I deemed worthy as a role model, I turned to my two older brothers. They were cool, and if someone wanted to test their kung fu, they didn’t have any problem showing that their kung fu was better. Seeing them fighting and winning, I developed a sense of Vietnamese pride, so it wasn’t long before I showed others my kung fu was good too. My first violent act was during a summer camp at Cal Poly. When a Caucasian kid tested me, I didn’t hold back, but instead, I punched him. Next thing I knew, a counselor was holding me and a crowd of kids was cheering me on. The counselor sternly stated that I was going to be suspended, and I replied that I didn’t give a fuck, at which point the crowd got even louder. This was not only my first act of violence, but also my first act of rebellion, and I knew then that this was how I must act in order to be respected, like my brothers. The final straw came when some of my boy scout troop and I were jumped by a group of African-American teens. After the teens’ laughter and us lying on the ground of the parking lot, we looked at each other and decided then that the boy scouts was not for us. We chucked our uniforms and donned blue jeans and chains, going from scouts to hoodlums.

In Southern California, there tended to be two kinds of Vietnamese gangs. The first was the street gang, largely unstructured. But unlike their Hispanic or African-American counterparts, it was rare for Vietnamese street gangs to truly represent a street or neighborhood. Rather, they were just some Vietnamese teens who got together and named themselves, mostly in accord with the city they were from—like “Pomona Boys” or “Santa Ana Boys”—or something to do with Vietnamese pride, like “V-Boys” or “Vietnamese For Life.” Since I was Vietnamese and from Pomona, my boys and I decided to call ourselves Vietnamese Gangster (VNG) Pomona V-Boys. We used the appendage “V-Boys” because we were the V-Boys’ younger association and under their protection. We started with minor things like cracking arcade games for money, and then moved up to GTA. Fighting was the norm now, and I soon landed in juvenile camp. Three months later, I came out bigger because I finally hit puberty. Everyone who mattered to me knew that I’d just come from the “box” and it wasn’t long before I went back to camp. My father still had hope for me, but after this second stretch, I disappointed him again and was no longer welcome under his roof. So with no place of my own, at age sixteen, I reached out to my brother Tony in Los Angeles, where I met the Black Dragon for the first time.

This is the second kind of Vietnamese gang, more exclusive to the LA area. This second kind was more engaged in organized crime, after the pattern of triads, perhaps because of the close cultural proximity of the Vietnamese to the Chinese. Black Dragon (Hac Lun) was one of these, and unlike the unstructured street gangs, Black Dragon had an ordered hierarchy where a soldier could move up the ranks and, if he is lucky and doesn’t land in prison for life or die, become an “Anh Hai” or a “Tai Lu”—the equivalent of a “Capo” in the Italian crime families.

The history of the Black Dragon began in the early 1980s. Its predecessor, the Viet Thanh, actually yielded three successors: Cool Boys, LA V-Boys, and Black Dragon. Since each came from Viet Thanh, these three were always at war with its rival, the Chinese gang Wa Ching. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chinatown consisted of both Chinese businesses and Vietnamese businesses. But the Wa Ching began harassing Vietnamese businesses, so the youths of the Vietnamese businesses decided to stand against the Wa Ching. That was how Viet Thanh started. But what started out as noble acts eventually were corrupted as the Viet Thanh became thugs themselves. After the three-way split, Black Dragon migrated to the San Gabriel Valley where it established new territories.

I chose to be part of the Black Dragon mainly because of the respect their members received. For example, one time my boys and I were walking into a nightclub associated with the Black Dragon, and a new bouncer stopped us and pointed us to the back of the line, but then the regular bouncer told him to let us through. (We were all still minors and this club was for those over twenty-one.) When we entered, the new bouncer insisted that we walk through the metal detector, which, of course, we weren’t going to do. This was when the older bouncer stepped in and told the new bouncer, “These guys are the real security of this club.” I still remember his words, and the pride I felt then was overwhelming, but it didn’t compare with what happened next. After my boys and I settled in at a VIP table, this new bouncer asked if he could speak with me. Sitting across from me, he asked for my forgiveness, pleading that he didn’t know since he was new. Here was a middle-aged man humbled, apologizing for his mistake and offering me his services. Respect… at long last.

When I became a member of the Black Dragon gang, I was known as Tin Hac Lun, or Tin BD. I carried that name with pride. When others thought of Black Dragon, I wanted them to think of me. When I was twenty-two, the Temple City Sheriff led the Asian Gang Task Force and rounded up my crew, now known as the “gangbanging” side of Black Dragon. I was facing possible of fifty-eight years for numerous counts of extortion and robbery, so I took a deal for two years and did my time at San Quentin. Obviously, I didn’t learn anything, and worse, I was now connected and moved up the ranks because I’d been to the big house. During this time, my crew and I broke away from our Anh Hai, because we no longer wanted or needed to be under his thumb. We could protect ourselves without him, and we wanted to keep all our earnings and not have to give him a cut. No longer a soldier, I had my own crew. However, we still kept the “Black Dragon” name because we’d earned it, and our loyalty was still to the gang.

Interview-5


Boom
: Tin Hac Lun sounds like a completely different person to the Tin I have known for the past four years. How did the lifestyle you led as Tin Hac Lun end in a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole?

Tin: Drugs were a major detriment in my life. At a young age, I inadvertently unleashed a demon so voracious that it consumed me. I started drinking in seventh grade, and met Mary Jane (marijuana) and Coco (cocaine) when I was fourteen. A couple years later, at a party, I was sitting on the bathroom floor across from a beautiful woman in her twenties, and she passed me a pipe with some crack…. Part of me screamed, “No!” But the demon within me seductively whispered, “Don’t embarrass yourself in front of this glorious girl—just take a hit, that’s all.” And the demon was right; that was all. I became the demon himself. Mary Jane, Coco, and later Crystal (Methamphetamine) became the three loves of my life. They destroyed me and brought me to the edge of suicide. Yet for one reason or another, I couldn’t find the nerve to do it myself, so I went crazy with drugs and gangs, hoping to end it all.

In 1996, during a robbery in San Jose, I killed Mr. Stanko Vuckovic. Throughout the years, I have replayed that moment repeatedly. I asked myself, “Did I pull the trigger?” or “Did the gun go off during the struggle?” After years of contemplating, I realized there were other factors just as significant. The point that I cocked the gun, that I chose to use the gun in the robbery, and above all my decision to rob this man and take what was not mine were all what caused his death. Yet, these were not the only factors. Other elements, such as abusing drugs, joining a gang and choosing a life of crime, were all the bad choices I made that led me to that very moment. I was going to kill someone eventually. Thus, I am responsible for Mr. Stanko Vuckovic’s death; I pulled the trigger and my only hope is that I can make amends for my actions and decisions.

I was arrested a year after I killed Mr. Vuckovic, and in late 1998 I was convicted and sentence to Life With Out the Possibility of Parole. Let me express now, with all respect, what I have wanted to say for two decades. I’ve run this in my head thousands of times…. I mean, how do I express my remorse and say, “I am so sorry” to a man whose life and future I took, to a family whom I hurt, or to the community I damaged? It’s not enough, and I realize that I must do this in person, for words on paper can never be adequate to sincerely express my contrition.

Boom: Thank you for saying that, Tin. I know that you want to return to your remorse and desire to make amends for past actions. But before you had this realization, what was your life like in a maximum-security prison? Was there anything unique about it from a Vietnamese perspective?

Tin: At age twenty-six, I began my journey on the gravel yard track at Pelican Bay, California’s most dangerous state prison. On my first day, an elder Vietnamese convict approached me and said, “Welcome to Pelican Bay, we’re the worst of the worst in California. You’re with us. You run Asian.” As we approached a table full of Asians and Pacific Islander, he expounded on the first rule, concerning “the boundaries.” He explained that the Whites, Blacks, and Mexicans have their tables, workout areas, and basketball and handball courts, and approximately ten feet around those areas was an invisible line that I was not to cross without their permission—if I did, my well-being would be at risk. Likewise, I was not to allow any other race to cross over our line; my job (and the job of all Asians and Pacific Islanders) was to stop the other races from crossing over, and if necessary, to “take flight” (i.e., stab them). So, that was the creed I lived by for many years. In prison, racial segregation was (and is) the norm; this was one of the many rules I had to abide by.

Here, there are two sets of rules. One is the Administration’s. As a prisoner, if you violate those, then you’ll be put in “the Hole.” The other set of rules is the convicts’. If you violate them, then you’ll have holes put in you.

As for the Vietnamese culture in prison, we might be small, but we’re no less vicious than the other races. Maybe it’s the pride we have. I’d read in a Vietnam War book that there are two nationalities that never stop fighting: one is the Irish; the other, the Vietnamese. At Pelican Bay, we Vietnamese were a tight group, and we helped each other with most things, like food, clothes, etc. Even though we had divisions among ourselves, such as North Cali versus South Cali, we united when troubles came our way—we bowed down to no one, even at the risk of our lives.

barbed wire


Boom
: That life seems a long way behind you now at Lancaster. Tell us about the man you are today, Tin. How did such a remarkable transformation take place?

Tin: This leads me back to the beginning of this interview. I believe there was someone up above divinely watching over me. When I was once surrounded and it looked like it was going to go badly for me, suddenly a big, muscular African American guy and his friends approached the crowd. These guys were Bloods, and they intervened and had a side meeting with the Crips surrounding me. Ultimately, the situation was resolved, and I survived another day. The Good Samaritan’s name was Jimmy, and we eventually became best friends, a big African American and a little Vietnamese. Today, Jimmy and I are both Golden Eagle classmates at California State University, Los Angeles.

Now, during my incarceration, I’ve experienced much pain, and I would shut this pain away, because to feel pain was to be weak, and early in my incarceration I chose never to be weak so that I would not be preyed upon. With this attitude, I felt dead, and in a way I was dead, just a walking corpse with no purpose, hope, or love. Approximately two years ago, I was in a very dark place. I know this sounds cliché, but a dog saved my life. It was part of the Paws for Life Program.[2]

I used to be petrified of dogs— definitely not a dog person. However, all that changed one evening when a Boxer put his head on my lap. Before this happened, my ex-girlfriend had left me. A broken heart is never easy, especially while doing “Life,” and it is not uncommon to feel depressed. However, it should not make one feel hopeless, or even destitute. In hindsight, I realize that this was the pivotal point of my life; whether I was going make it or break it. All the pains of my life, that I had carefully locked away, came rushing out. The pains of my childhood, the regret and remorse of my crime, the loss of my freedom, and the death of my father and brother during my incarceration came back to haunt me. The break up was the key that unlocked my miseries. The pains were excruciating. I wanted to end it one way or another, wanted the pain to go away. I’d kept on like this until I was so broken that I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Once again, I contemplated the forever night, the long sleep. However, an angel came to rescue me. It didn’t come with its majestic wings or divine presence, nor even a halo, but rather with four paws and a mean mug. My angel turned out to be “Vic,” a battered Boxer-breed dog who’d been used as bait for fighting pit bulls. My encounter with Vic happened in a most unusual way.

One evening as I was talking to my friend Bernik, I noticed a Boxer dog full of anxiety. He stood there constantly watching as if something might attack him. Then all of a sudden, he came over and laid his head on my lap. I was scared, yet touched. Then he proceeded to lay down, and Bernik said, “Wow!” It didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me, so I asked why all the excitement. Bernik explained that the Boxer named Vic was a bait dog, who had come here all scarred up with a smashed paw. He had a rough life. Bernik said that since he came in, he hadn’t been able to relax, so lying down and sleeping at my feet was amazing. This broke through me in a way I did not think possible. I knew that I couldn’t help him amid my own pain, but he was offering his pain for me to help with. So I reached down, put my hand on his head, and whispered, “I got your back, bud. No one on this yard is going to hurt you.” From then on, I made sure that I spent as much time as I could to comfort him, train him, and protect him. Through this relationship, Vic got better, and that was the goal. However, though I thought that I was there for him, it was also the other way around; Vic was there for me. He comforted me when I was down and out. He trained me to be strong and get back up, and protected me from my destructive self. The funny thing was that I believed that when Vic came over to me, he was thinking “that guy is suffering like me; maybe I should help and protect him.”

What PFL did for me is extraordinary. PFL not only saved my life, but it also gave me life.

Interview-8.jpg

Though Vic gave me love, I was still somewhat lost, still believing that I was irredeemable and doomed to a life of constant bad decision-making. Then through PFL came a second angel—you Dr. Roy. With your kindness and untiring passion to see the good in all, in everyone, you amazed me and became for me the role model that I’d never had before. No words can express my full appreciation for what you have done for incarcerated people, me especially. You looked at us not through the eyes of an enemy or through hate, but through the eyes of love, and with respect for our humanity. As a result, you gave us confidence, hope, and purpose.

Now I’m a student on this extension campus inside this prison, and I’m on my way to attaining my dream of obtaining a BA degree. I once thought I was irredeemable, meaning that I thought I had to die first and be reincarnated or something else if I were to have any hope of ever being a good person again. Now, the professors and faculty and students at Cal State LA have taught me that I can take down those walls that I built around my heart. Even if it’s day by day, I can take down those walls, because I am the builder. I don’t need them to protect me from pain, failure, or disappointment, because I’m not inherently bad. I know now that being good is a choice that I’ll be faced with making every day of my life. I once was an advocate of all that’s dark and hate surrounded me with those walls. I promoted the Black Dragon and Vietnamese gangs’ lifestyles to other Vietnamese youth, but now, I encourage them to get their education, to transform their lives and live with hope and goodness.

I’m serving a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole, which means that if the laws do not change or society has no mercy for me, then I will die in prison. “Life Without the Possibility of Parole” is a death sentence—the only difference between it and lethal injection is that Death Row prisoners get a final meal and a team of lawyers. Still, as bleak as my circumstances are, I find myself happier than at any time in my life since childhood. That little Vietnamese kid with his little red wagon that was imprisoned as P24706, today I walk my dog in the evening on the prison yard, and no longer feel the cold concrete walls with their sharp razor-wire, nor the tower with its gunner and Mini-14. Here, it is just me and my dog… and I feel free.


 
Editor’s Postscript:
When the interview was completed at the end of the third meeting, without explanation Tin prostrated himself before Dr. Roy in the middle of the prison yard in front of all the guards and other prisoners. He performed a deeply meaningful ritual, later explaining it in the following way, asking that it be included in this interview to honor the family of Stanko Vuckovic—the man whose life he took.

Tin: I may never have that chance to apologize in person, so I’d like to do this now at least.
I would like to do this in the Vietnamese traditional way.
I am on my knees, and bow my head, prostrating myself, three times.
With each: “I am so sorry, please forgive me.”
I promise for the rest of my life, as a living amends, I will do my best to impact others’ lives for the good in homage of you, your family, and your community. Thank you for allowing me to be honest and express my remorse.

 

Prison_Card_4_215_Final

Notes

[1] These numbers, while a bit dated, are provided by the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, https://apscinfo.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/apis-in-ca-prisons/. More up to date details can be found in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s offender data points demographic, comprising the most recent demographic information for those incarcerated in CDCR, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/docs/Data_Points_Dec_2016.pdf. From December 2016, the “Others” population (which includes American Indian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Asians, many of whom are Vietnamese) consisted of 8,907 individuals incarcerated in the state system (6.9% of the total population of incarcerated people). Of this number, 598 were born in Vietnam (in December 2014, it was 660). See pp. 10, 17, 85 of the report.

[2] Paws for Life (PFL) is a therapeutic program and unique partnership between the organization Karma Rescue and the California State Prison–LA County that began in 2014. See http://karmarescue.org/paws-for-life/ and also Jackie Fernandez, “CSP-Los Angeles County launches Paws For Life program,” Inside CDCR, 3 July 2014, https://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2014/07/csp-los-angeles-county-launches-paws-for-life-program/.

 

 Tin Nguyen has been incarcerated for nineteen years, serving a Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentence. A son, brother, uncle, and capable of change. He is a student in Cal State LA’s BA program, as well as a dog trainer in the “Paws For Life” dog program at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster.

Bidhan Chandra Roy is an associate professor of English Literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the founder of WordsUncaged, a platform for men sentenced to life sentences in California prisons to dialogue and critically engage with the world beyond the prison walls. He is also the faculty director of Cal State LA’s BA program at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster, as well co-chairman of the board of Karma Rescue, an organization that runs the “Paws for Life” dog rescue and training programs in prisons throughout California.

Copyright: © 2018 Tin Nguyen and Bidhan Chandra Roy. 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 Big Siesta

Siesta_Chandler-2

Blake Allmendinger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Siesta_Chandler-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Siesta_Chandler-4

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid., 59.

[9] Ibid., 4, 58.

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

[11] Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines, 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Articles

Black Life in Adelanto

Pierre_1_edit

Image adapted from Flickr user Alex Proimos.

Jemima Pierre

My first trip to the GEO Group’s Adelanto Detention Center, the privately-run prison facility located deep inland in Southern California’s San Bernardino County, was to meet with a Haitian asylum seeker, Mr. Clement.[1] Mr. Clement had entered the U.S. from Mexico and had been in detention for nine months. Earlier that summer, he participated in a hunger strike that brought together Central American and Haitian asylum seekers demanding better treatment in Adelanto. It was through this strike that he and some of the other detained Haitian men had garnered some attention. And through a series of legal and activist connections—connections stretching from local immigration rights organizers through Florida, Haiti, and back to Los Angeles—I heard of Mr. Clement and faced, for the first time, the travesty of detention for Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers in Southern California.

Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers are a growing population within detention centers all over the U.S. Southwest. Numbers vary, but there are estimates of thousands of noncriminal Haitians incarcerated, with the largest population in Otay Mesa, Arizona. Haitian migration to these parts is relatively new, beginning with a trickle arriving early 2016 to thousands today. (Mr. Clement said that there were about thirty to fifty other Haitian men, as well as a small number of Africans, detained in his jail block. He was not sure of the numbers held in other blocks, or of how many Haitian women are being held in the women’s wing of Adelanto.) This migration is also unusual. It reflects a new pattern for Haitian migrants, who originally traveled the direct route over the Caribbean Sea to the eastern U.S., and settled in metropolitan centers such as Miami and New York, cities with large Caribbean and African immigrant populations. This new pattern of migration means a more than 7,000-mile trek over land from Brazil through South and Central America, into Mexico and, finally, crossing one of the borders into the U.S. Southwest.

Mr. Clement’s journey to the U.S. was not an easy one. But his story is similar to that of other Haitian migrants in Southern California. He left Haiti for the Dominican Republic and later traveled to Brazil. He was in Brazil for eight months, working odd jobs, barely surviving. Life in Brazil was precarious for Mr. Clement as it was for other Haitian men and women. Brazil, already known for its long history of anti-Black racism, was almost unbearable for Haitians, who are perceived as “too” Black, and often suffered racist violence.[2] Many Haitians have decided to leave Brazil, risking their lives to make the treacherous trek to the United States where they have family. Similarly, from Brazil, Mr. Clement traveled by land through Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. The journey took more than three months, interrupted by arrests (for example, Nicaraguan officials arrested Haitians on site and jailed them for days) and a lack of funds. Occasionally, Haitian migrants would claim to be from an African country in order not to be harassed by officials in some Central American states. Mr. Clement spoke of the difficulty of the journey through Central America including having friends and fellow travelers die in the Columbian forests, drowning as they crossed rivers, or being robbed by local bandits. He said Honduras[3] provided something of a reprieve—a small community in Choluteca became one of the first groups to treat the Haitian travelers as family. Tijuana was the only other place in his travels where Mr. Clement felt he was treated with kindness.

He said Honduras provided something of a reprieve—a small community in Choluteca became one of the first groups to treat the Haitian travelers as family. Tijuana was the only other place in his travels where Mr. Clement felt he was treated with kindness.

Mr. Clement spent more than a month in Tijuana, waiting for an appointment date from the Mexican government to cross the border into the U.S.[4] When Mr. Clement finally approached the San Ysidro border crossing he was immediately arrested. He was surprised to find that his initial immigration interview was conducted by a Haitian-American border patrol officer—in Haitian Creole (kreyòl ayisyen). The officer was intimidating, Mr. Clement said. He repeatedly accused Mr. Clement of being a Haitian gang member who was running away from rivals, a claim Mr. Clement denied. After Mr. Clement was processed he was sent to a small holding cell. The cell was not meant for more than three or four people but was packed with at least thirty individuals. The holding cell had no window or bed. Most people slept sitting up while some slept on mats. The prisoners could not shower or brush their teeth. They didn’t know how long migrants were held there, but Mr. Clement believed that it was around five days. (Other Haitian migrants confirmed these facts.) After those five days, they were moved to actual jail cells in another prison—in San Diego (whose name he and the others do not know). After three days there, the migrants and asylum seekers were put in prison jumpsuits, shackled with chains at the waist, wrists, and ankles, and placed on a bus for the more than six-hour drive to the Adelanto Detention Center.

Mr. Clement and his colleagues discussed their treatment in the U.S.—from border guards to prison guards—as condescending and inhumane and they all stated that they were not expecting to be treated like criminals the moment they crossed the border. They described the humiliation of not being able to use the toilet on the long bus trip to Adelanto. Some people urinated on themselves while others asked their fellow prisoners to unzip their pants to remove their penises so they could urinate where they sat.

The men described their months-long stay at Adelanto as torture. The men recounted being kept indoors most of the time, and allowed outdoors once a week but only for a very short period. They were not allowed to sleep more than a few hours at a time. For example, when guards ordered the inmates into their small rooms at 11 p.m., they had to wake up at 1 a.m. for a “head count.” After ordering everyone back to their rooms, the guards woke them up again at 4 or 5 a.m. for breakfast. The lights in the cells were never turned off—which, according to one former Haitian detainee, affected those on the top bunks even more—and the detention center was always freezing cold. In addition, some of the Haitians complained of guards using racial slurs against them, calling them “fucking blacks” and “Haitian trash.”

At Adelanto, Haitians have had larger bond amounts (ranging anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000) placed on them to secure their release than immigrant prisoners elsewhere in the U.S. And until recently, very few Haitians have been able to bond out of Adelanto and few have won their asylum cases. A colleague who currently conducts research at Adelanto suggested that the denial rate for Haitian asylum cases there was almost 100%. At the same time, despite the denial rates, the asylum seekers are forced to serve extended periods in detention before their deportation. Mr. Clement spoke of Adelanto as “sucking us dry.”

I know that this prison is private business, and that this body [he gestures to his chest] is worth $140 per day for Adelanto. So they hold us for as long as they can. They give us high bonds that we cannot pay. They change our asylum hearing dates. They even force those who do not want asylum to claim asylum so they can keep them longer. When they cannot make more money out of us, then they deport us quickly.

Indeed, reporter Kate Morrissey argued that as of November 2016, “detaining Haitians… in immigration holding facilities is costing American taxpayers an estimated $379,380 per day.”[5] That number is greater now. Mr. Clement and some of his friends describe a number of African immigrants and asylum seekers who, having been detained for months without hope, attempted suicide.

Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk interdicts Haitian migrants

The Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk crew interdicts a group of Haitian migrants July 11, 2017, approximately 22 miles south of Great Inagua, Bahamas.

Compared to those coming from Central America and Mexico, the detention of Haitian migrants and asylum seekers in the U.S. Southwest is relatively recent.[6] When Haitian migrants first began in appear at the U.S.-Mexico border in small groups in early 2016,[7] they were allowed into the U.S. through what is called a “humanitarian parole,” given a three-year temporary pass and released to family members. However, by late September 2016, and as the numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers increased exponentially, the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security put new arrivals in “expedited removal proceedings,” which means that they could be—and were—detained in prisons, especially if they have asylum claims.

How did so many Haitian people end up at the U.S.-Mexico border and, ultimately, at the Adelanto Detention Center and other facilities throughout the U.S. Southwest? In the increasing coverage given to this recent wave of Haitian migrants, the story seems simple: Haitians traveled to Brazil under humanitarian visas after the 2010 earthquake, and later were recruited to Brazil as a cheap labor source while the country prepared to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Since then, Brazil has been beset by severe economic retrenchment, forcing many Haitians to leave for the U.S.

Yet there is much more to this. Migrants leave Haiti for economic reasons, but also because of gang-related persecution, political instability, domestic abuse, and extreme homophobia.[8] The country has also suffered from a long history of foreign military interventions, including ten interventions by the U.S. since the end of the nineteenth century. The U.S. also occupied Haiti twice in the twentieth century, the longest being the nineteen-year military occupation from 1915-1934. Most recently, Haiti has been under a militarized foreign occupation since February 2004, when the U.S., Canada, and France sponsored a coup d’état to oust its popularly elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide.[9] The coup d’état led to a short military occupation by U.S. forces, which was later sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council when they approved a “peacekeeping” mission in Haiti.[10] The military wing of the mission was headed by Brazil for more than a decade.[11] The occupation of Haiti has also added to the country’s political instability, undermining Haitian democracy and self-determination and challenging sovereignty. It has also led to massive suffering: Fall 2010, not long after the earthquake January of that year that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Nepalese troops brought cholera to Haiti. It induced an epidemic that has sickened more than a million Haitians and killed between 10,000 and 30,000.[12] Accountability has not been forthcoming. The UN has refused to admit its culpability and the Haitian people have had no avenue for redress.

When we met, Mr. Clement was preparing to present his asylum claim before a U.S. immigration court housed not far from the ICE offices within the Adelanto facility. Immigration proceedings in detention centers are considered “administrative” matters and are less formal than regular court proceedings. The usual rules of evidence do not apply and the presiding judges have substantial leeway in their interpretation of testimony and the assessment of asylum claims. Meanwhile, as U.S. immigration policy dictates, he can only receive legal representation at his own expense; Mr. Clement was forced to represent himself.

Yet despite such terrible circumstances, Mr. Clement is one of the fortunate ones. With the help of a bond fund[13] established for the Adelanto hunger strikers by a local organization, volunteers were able to bond him out of the detention center just before his deportation hearing. A regular immigration judge on the outside—rather than within Adelanto—will now hear his asylum case, and Mr. Clement will now have a more normal set of legal set of proceedings. At the same time, he is stuck within the U.S. criminal justice system. He was bonded out on a $17,000 bond with two ankle bracelets (shackles produced by a subsidiary of the GEO Group)—one for ICE, and one for the bond company. The bond company that collateralized his release requires former detainees to pay a $480 “activation fee” for the ankle monitor, and $420 per month service fee for as long as it takes for his case to be resolved. Yet, as an asylum seeker awaiting trial, Mr. Clement is not allowed to seek employment to cover this non-refundable fee, the ankle monitor fee, or his day-to-day living expenses.

Mr. Clement may be out of detention, but he is certainly not free.

 

Notes

  • With gratitude to Peter James Hudson for his brilliant and generous feedback.

[1] All names of asylum seekers are pseudonyms.

[2] “Haitian Immigrants Victims of Xenophobic Attacks in Brazil,” TeleSur, 9 August 2015, https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Haitian-Immigrants-Victims-of-Xenophobic-Attacks-in-Brazil-20150809-0002.html; “‘It’s not because I’m black, is it?’—As Haitian immigrants head to the south of Brazil, racist tendencies arise as descendants of European immigrants turn their noses up,” Black Women of Brazil, 29 May 2015, https://blackwomenofbrazil.co/2015/05/29/its-not-because-im-black-is-it-as-haitian-immigrants-head-to-the-south-of-brazil-racist-tendencies-arise-as-descendants-of-european-immigrants-turn-their-noses-up/.

[3] Although, with pressure from the United States, Honduras has begun arresting Haitian migrants traveling through the country (http://www.hougansydney.com/whats-happening-in-haiti/more-than-100-haitian-migrants-arrested-in-honduras).

[4] It turns out that the Mexican government does not allow all who want to cross the border to the U.S. Instead, it passes out appointment dates to cross. Most of these dates require the Haitian (and other migrants) to spend at least two weeks in Baja California.

[5] Kate Morrissey, “ Detaining Haitians awaiting deportation to hurricane-ravaged homeland is not inexpensive,” San Diego Union Tribune, 11 November 2016, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/sd-me-haitian-cost-20161111-story.html.

[6] Of course, the U.S. has a long history of detaining Haitian asylum seekers and migrants. Two of the more notorious detention centers are Krome Detention Center (http://thepublicarchive.com/?p=3362) and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay (http://gitmomemory.org/timeline/haitians-and-gtmo/) before it gained more notoriety as a maximum-security prison for purported suspects of the U.S. “War on Terror.” Both of these detention centers have reputations for the cruel treatment of Haitian immigrants.

[7] Daniel González, “Migrants amassed at U.S.-Mexico border unsure what’s next,” azcentral,13 December 2016, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/border-issues/2016/12/13/thousands-haitian-migrants-amassed-us-mexico-border-unsure-whats-next/94688238/.

[8] There are also new impediments to social life, including the recent Haitian government’s new anti-LGBT posture (http://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-21838-haiti-politics-what-say-the-law-on-reputation-and-good-life-and-morals.html).

[9] Jemima Pierre, “Haiti: The Second Occupation,” The Black Scholar, 14 August 2015, http://www.theblackscholar.org/haiti-the-second-occupation/; Anthony Fenton and Dru Oja Jay, “Ottawa’s “Secret Memo”: Canada’s Role in Haiti’s February 2004 Coup d’Etat,” Global Research, 26 February 2013, https://www.globalresearch.ca/declassifying-canada-in-haiti-canadian-officials-planned-military-intervention-weeks-before-haitian-coup/2225; “When Canada plotted to overthrow Haiti’s government,” 24 January 2014, https://yvesengler.com/tag/ottawa-initiative/.

[10] According to Dady Chery, Haiti’s UN mission is the only UN Chapter 7 force in a country that is not at war. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter gives the UN Security Council the power to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace” and take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.” Participating countries have boasted about Haiti being a place where they could test their police methods and military equipment for urban warfare on an unsuspecting population” (“10 Reasons Why UN Occupation of Haiti Must End,” Haïti Liberté, 19 April 2017, https://haitiliberte.com/10-reasons-why-un-occupation-of-haiti-must-end/).

[11] Jemima Pierre, “Brazil’s Haitian Training Ground,” Black Agenda Report, 4 May 2011, https://blackagendareport.com/content/brazil’s-haitian-training-ground.

[12] Gina Athena Ulysse, “30 Thousand Haitian Lives Lost to U.N. Cholera,” HuffPost, 6 June 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-athena-ulysse/30-thousand-haitian-lives_b_10299692.html.

[13] https://cluela.nationbuilder.com/Adelanto.

 

Jemima Pierre is Associate Professor jointly appointed in the Departments of African American Studies and of Anthropology at UCLA. She is the author of The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (Chicago). Her research focuses on race, political economy, transnationalism, and the politics of knowledge production.

Copyright: © 2017 Jemima Pierre. 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

Undocumented Emotional Intelligence

Rosas Figure 1

Ana Elizabeth Rosas

Adelaida Gutierrez wrote “The Eternal Wait” during the Spring 2016 semester. She wrote it to capture the people and moments that framed her immigration history.[1] She identified and described the anxiety she felt over her mother’s U.S. immigration status as an underestimated undocumented experience in the state of California. Gutierrez is among the undergraduate students enrolled in my courses at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) who have developed and applied informed and meaningful dimensions of emotional intelligence as an intellectual priority. She is also among the students at our campus that, irrespective of whether they are U.S. citizens, have met with me to untangle, write, and learn from their own emotive immigration histories. She and her fellow students’ investment in an emotional intelligence that does not underestimate the transformative potential of emotive immigration history has proven to be intellectually generative. For the purpose of this essay, an emotive immigration history is being referred to as a person’s historical account of the underestimated emotional configuration and consequences of navigating particular boundaries—including governmental border enforcement measures and programs—as an immigrant person or a person with an emotional connection to an immigrant person across a diversity of contexts and relationships, and over a range of space and time.

Since the 2015-2016 academic year, UCI undergraduate students have grown in their commitment to recollect, document, write, value, share, and learn from their undocumented emotive immigration histories under my faculty advisement, which has been something they have done together as a critical intellectual response to the tumult of the contemporary moment.[2] Our collective investment in appreciating the relevance and potential of our emotive immigration histories together has emerged as a restorative intellectual investment at our campus because it has laid the foundation for an intellectual imaginary that refuses to settle for emotionally unintelligent approaches to U.S. border enforcement measures and programs.

Learning about their undocumented emotive immigration histories together and having an emotive immigration history in place to turn to when pursuing their undergraduate study has been helpful at UCI. And so had the support provided to each other, with increased importance as students have benefited from the federal government’s administration of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. In 2012, President Barack Obama created this program to grant temporary immigration status to an estimated 742,000 people (about one in three living in California), permitting them legally to work, pursue an education, and continue openly contributing to U.S. society.[3] Every two years, successful DACA program applicants were expected to renew their program participation through their continued fulfillment of program requirements. More than 800,000 immigrants have DACA program temporary status and permits.[4]

It is important to not overlook that DACA recipients are young. In 2014, the largest age group of DACA recipients were individuals younger than 19 years of age.[5] Upon writing this article, an estimated 4,000 students attending University of California campuses are DACA program recipients, and an unrecorded number of students are in the process of applying to this program or else know a student, friend, loved one, or family member pursuing education, employment, marriage, caring for their family, conducting civic engagement and political activism as recipients of this program.[6] Taken collectively this makes President Trump’s 5 September 2017 decision to rescind DACA a devastating social reality for students and faculty like myself who work closely with students participating in this program and who are interested in the future of students at our campus. We worry that if Congress does not pass legislation protecting DACA recipients, an estimated 404,909 of them will have temporary status revoked from permits expiring in 2018.[7] This means that immigrant students, among other undocumented immigrant peoples, would be subject to deportation from the United States.

Such deep-seated concern has inspired UCI students to invest in taking careful inventory of their and their fellow students’ emotive immigration histories to remind themselves of the positive results that occur when they don’t let questions about personal relationships, daily routine, and outlook on their academic, emotional, and financial future intensify or reproduce anxiety and exhaustion over immigration, immigration status, and the future of the DACA program and other border enforcement scenarios. Engaging with fellow students at our campus without intensifying the emotional weight of the many ways that border enforcement measures and programs influence their emotional relationships, wellbeing, and lives became a widely shared (and often undocumented) goal among students at our campus.

Engaging with fellow students at our campus without intensifying the emotional weight of the many ways that border enforcement measures and programs influence their emotional relationships, wellbeing, and lives became a widely shared (and often undocumented) goal among students at our campus.

By focusing on the undocumented and emotionally intelligent intellectual imaginaries, productivity, and community, in response to the uncertainty of our contemporary immigration policy as an instructive undocumented experience, UCI students have forged, developed,  informed, and engaged humane forms of emotional intelligence alongside other undergraduate students. This has been integral to the pursuit of thriving as a community of learners that cares about the emotive consequences and future of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs. Learning from the writing, documentation, and collaborations that UCI students have undertaken as proactive and emotionally intelligent students enrolled in my courses and workshops on immigration history and Chicana/o-Latina/o Studies throughout the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years is integral to enriching a form of scholarship on the intellectual investments and collaborations of students who have prioritized learning from undocumented social realities, emotive relationships, and intellectual choices they have made as undergraduate students facing the uncertainty of immigration policy while being part of the University of California.[8] The present essay aims to showcase that the intellectual act of recollecting, documenting, and learning from undocumented emotive immigration histories together with humanity and with rigorous critical reflection provides a revealing and promising approach to the emotional expanse and consequences of undocumented immigration and immigration policy within and beyond our University of California classrooms. 


Writing Emotive Immigration History

For UCI students investing in the writing of their emotive immigration history was a way of recognizing and learning from the entirety of their family history without underestimating the weight of their feelings. In “The Eternal Wait,” Gutierrez recognized that throughout her childhood her mother’s pursuit of a legalized U.S. immigration status had been formative to her developing an emotional intelligence that would discourage her from underestimating the emotional accountability of being supportive of undocumented immigrant parental figures as they pursued the legalization of their immigration status. She shared the worry that would overcome her whenever she and her older brother accompanied their mother to U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offices to complete forms and conduct interviews. This solidified her support for fellow students and friends applying and benefiting from an immigration status that protects them against deportation from the United States. And this act made it possible for her to confront the silence that sets in when pursuing the legalization of one’s immigration status in the United States.

Elaborating, Gutierrez noted that she was expected to

remain quiet after my mother was called behind the monochromatic cubicles. I anxiously sat in my chair and took in my surroundings. There wasn’t a hint of color to feast my eyes upon, just the decaying noxious spectrum of browns and weird faded yellows.  It was hard to distract my mind from the catastrophic thoughts racing through my head. At our age waiting for my mom to reappear felt like an eternity.[9]

She explained that being “expected to sit still and behave was impossible.”[10] How could she be still? The likelihood of her mother’s INS interview resulting in the permanent separation of their family was real. The emotional weight of waiting was not new for Gutierrez, and she feared that students and friends applying or renewing their DACA program permits to varying degrees and on an everyday basis shouldered the weight of waiting in silence.

Writing about the emotive continuities between her recollections of her emotive immigration history and the feelings students acknowledged and shared as part of our discussions of these histories moved Gutierrez to identify the enduring emotional challenge of being an immigrant and/or a member of a mixed-status immigrant family in the United States. Writing her emotive immigration history fueled her resolve to appropriate an informed emotional intelligence so that she did not risk underestimating the emotional labor and silence that INS forms and interactions entailed. Recollecting her emotive immigration history during this challenging moment in U.S. immigration history informed her acknowledgement of the feelings and silence with which students and friends pursue an undergraduate education, making ends meet, and caring for themselves and their immigrant family relatives and friends.

Writing and sharing their emotive immigration histories with each other also inspired UCI students to recognize the influence of formative people and moments that framed their understanding of the emotive configuration and impact of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs. Allocating time from their packed schedules to write on the emotional conditions, relationships, and weight that informs their understanding of border enforcement led these students to identify their recollecting, writing, and learning from their emotive immigration histories together as an invaluable learning experience, which had been rarely afforded to them (especially in the university), if at all. Embracing an emotive approach together resonated as decisive for many of these students towards their finally acknowledging their personal connection to the emotional intelligence they sought to enhance as an informed and humane response to the emotional grip of U.S. government border enforcement measures and programs.

Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, UCI students continued to write and share emotive immigration histories that also centered on the destinations and people that most longed for the legal right to pursue an education, and to enjoy employment and a family. These rights were determined for countless immigrant students by the U.S. government. These students’ willingness to forge an emotional intelligence that valued the restorative potential of the diversity of destinations for framing people’s emotive immigration histories together encouraged students to write about their feelings of transnational longing and loss. Mariana Rodriguez was among the students who wrote an emotive immigration history steeped in her longing for Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico. In “Gorditas de Nata,” (Patties made out of Cream) she explained the following:

Three weeks ago, when I had gorditas de nata again after 11 years, they tasted like everything that had been snatched away from me. In a few bites, I was reminded of all the memories that could have been mine, but were not. I was reminded that I could not be there for the warmth that vibrated through the music, tight hugs, and fireworks that set the sky on fire. More regrettably, I was not able to hold my uncle’s hand before he passed away.[11]

Rodriguez’s recollections of Tijuana as integral to her emotive immigration history made it possible for she and fellow students to discuss the revealing potential of yearning when developing a capacious emotional intelligence together. Her writing about her yearning for the food, sounds, feelings, celebration, and people that made Tijuana a uniquely invaluable connection to experiences and people that she is unable to enjoy in the U.S. alerted students to the reality of other students and friends shouldering intense transnational longing as part of their maturing into adulthood and navigating the rigors of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs on a daily basis. Rodriguez expanding on what is not possible in the U.S. resonated with students as an important intellectual move toward developing a kind of emotional intelligence that prioritizes recognizing that students cherish, miss, and worry about experiences and people who are not physically in the United States. Her transnational emotive immigration history presented students with the often undocumented social reality that young adults at our campus hold and care about a diversity of destinations, experiences, and people when coming to terms with their emotive immigration history and its influence on their response to U.S. border enforcement operatives.

Diego Hernandez was also among the students who wrote about his emotive ties to people beyond the U.S. when writing his emotive immigration history. Hernandez elaborated on the emotional impact of the transnational absence of his grandmother. In “Memories We Did Not Leave at the Border,” Hernandez focused on his devotion and undying love for her. He shared that upon separating from her in Guatemala to journey to the United States as an undocumented immigrant child in the mid-1990s, he clung to his emotional bond to her to weather his migration and settlement in the U.S. Hernandez identified memories of her love as most influential when implementing an emotional intelligence to face her absence and the social rejection, racial discrimination, and gender violence stemming from punitive and restrictive border enforcement measures. He wrote that his grandmother

was a stern woman, but her love for me melted like paletas de hielo con sabor de tamarindo (tamarind popsicles) in the sun. The sugary extract of her love made us inseparable. She was my first love, and until today at the age of 28, I long to return to her embrace. I long to return to those young days when the softness and creases of her aging skin enveloped me with care and tenderness.[12]

Hernandez also explained that upon separating from his grandmother, he clearly remembers,

That morning we left behind a woman whose love could never be taken from my heart, even by a border wall that separates us. In my recollection of her eyes I found love, and in her laughter I found the comfort of a child’s lullaby.[13]

The intellectual investment in developing a personally meaningful emotional intelligence as a shared priority encouraged Hernandez and fellow students to share emotive immigration histories inclusive of ongoing transnational emotional challenges.


Revisiting Revealing Relationships

By the 2016-2017 academic year, UCI students expanded the writing of their emotive immigration histories to include documentation that captured the influence of formative people and their recollections of their immigration histories developed from conversations, material culture items, and documents that influential family relatives shared with them. Stephanie Palomares excelled as a most committed student when writing her emotive immigration history. She visited her grandmother, Delfina Palomares, five times as she weathered a severe cold and flu to collect and learn from the material of the emotive immigration history they shared.[14]

During her visits Palomares learned that Delfina had been born and raised in Rancho el Rodeo, Jalisco, Mexico. As a young girl, she lived a middle-class lifestyle with loving parents. Enthusiastic in her approach to life, she enjoyed music and dancing; in fact, she met her husband, Efren Palomares, at a dance party in nearby Talpa de Allende, Jalisco. Shortly after having met, they married in 1962 and moved to the village of Yano Grande, Jalisco, to be closer to Efren’s workplace. Upon beginning their life together, Delfina transitioned into a financially precarious family situation. Ten years later (1972), and after the birth of their five children, Delfina and Efren’s employment conditions compelled them to raise their family in the United States.

In 1973, Efren followed Delfina’s advice and departed to the United States to earn the wages necessary for their family to live together. In 1976, Delfina and their children reunited with Efren in Orange County. They worked hard together, and endured the hardships of immigration patiently. Over the years, they dedicated themselves to raising their family in Santa Ana. In 1981, the couple bought their first home in Anaheim, cementing their personal investment in documenting the love and moments—the emotive immigration history—that connected their family together.

Among the material culture items that Palomares’ grandmother shared with her was a gold medallion of the Virgin Mary. Delfina had worn and derived much peace from the religious protection and spiritual energy that this medallion bestowed upon her. Delfina recollected holding on to this medallion tightly while praying in silence for spiritual courage and protection as she shouldered much uncertainty. Photographs of Delfina alongside her five sons, daughter, and Efren as they celebrated her birthday and successful battle with cancer were also part of the documentation that she shared with Stephanie to convey the significant moments that bound them together. Delfina explained to Palomares the importance for the undocumented to personally document meaningful relationships through taking and preserving photographs that bring to life the moments in which being together was a fruitful emotional investment. She insisted on sharing that it was important to create and inherit an emotive history that prioritized documenting the act of living together, smiling together, and reveling in the power of having endured together. These were not to be treated as one of many moments but rather as important moments in the trajectory of their family’s emotive immigration history. Delfina’s words infused into our class’s collective consideration of this history the value of documenting elderly immigrant relatives’ places when confronted with worrisome U.S. governmental approaches and further outlooks on undocumented immigration.

The power of documentation was also evident in Esmeralda Hic’s emotive immigration history. She prioritized sharing how her mother, Juanita Magdalena Garza’s documentation of her coming of age through photographs of her Quinceañera had been formative to her upbringing .[15] Juanita used photographs of this celebration to not lose sight of her life being comprised of moments where she enjoyed herself alongside childhood friends and with a heart full of hope for the future. She explained that this is why forty years later on 27 April 2013 she had persevered to finance the documentation and celebration of Esmeralda’s Quinceañera in a similar fashion. Like her parents, she had invested herself in making sure that Esmeralda had an archive of moments she could turn to as a source from which to derive inner strength when confronted with difficult situations at whatever age and wherever she found herself. The preservation and recollection of the milestones achieved and documented by these women allowed students to travel back and forth through time.


Similarly, by the end of the 2016-2017 academic year the interest of my students and myself led us to encourage as many other UCI students as possible to consider the productive qualities of developing an emotional intelligence as an intellectual priority together. This resulted in a workshop collaboration at our campus, called “Revisiting Immigration History.” This workshop served as a productive intellectual space and community from which to learn from each other as a community of learners. Our forging an emotional intelligence together through this workshop made it easier for students to understand and cope with their feelings on undocumented immigration and immigration history.

Each student participating in the workshop submitted a photograph that captured an undocumented emotive dimension of immigration history and/or the undocumented immigrant experience that they welcomed discussing as part of this workshop. This approach to coming together allowed students to use their presentation of their photograph submission as a way of introducing themselves and their intellectual imaginaries to students that they were often meeting for the first time without augmenting their emotional exhaustion. The presentation of these photographs allowed students to consider undocumented immigration as an expansive, continuous, and diverse process and experience. Developing and applying this intellectual sensibility together made it accessible for reflecting on how we each are impacted by and invested in the future of undocumented immigration with documentation that students generated on their own and for the sake of us learning from each other and together with our humanity front and center. This workshop experience resulted in a careful consideration of the modalities that came into focus and grew in value because of the influential absence or decline in emotional intelligence evident in the U.S. government’s attitude towards immigration, undocumented immigrants, and immigration policy in the form of U.S. border enforcement measures and programs.

Participating in this workshop energized Andres Oceguera Pinedo to share a family photograph that his mother, Mercedes Pinedo, had shared with him.[16] Oceguera Pinedo explained that in the midst of fellow students working tirelessly to contribute to the emotional and financial welfare of their mixed status immigrant families, as they pursued their undergraduate education at our campus, his mother’s rationale for taking and sharing this photograph with him resonated differently. He explained that his mother’s photograph featured her surrounded by his older sisters. It was taken by a family friend, so that his mother documented being able to labor and care for his sisters during the summer of 1975 as an agricultural laborer at the John Pryor Farms in Soledad. His mother shared that this photograph captured what people in our contemporary moment rarely dare to acknowledge or document with care: the emotional intelligence of immigrants. Ocegueda Pinedo elaborated that his mother cherished this photograph, because it did not allow her to forget the hard earned privilege of being in one place together and as a family as she labored to ensure that they had the right to do so as an immigrant family in the United States. Like herself, Andres’s mother wanted him to understand and appreciate their family photograph as her documentation of the undocumented value immigrants place on doing everything possible to derive strength from simply being still and together after a hard week’s work. Such words and documentation and discussing them together paved the way for students to learn from Ocegueda Pinedo the importance of pausing regularly to take inventory and to document in ways that we deem comforting and humane—the hard earned privilege and value of being still and alongside those we care about and love.

Marleni Flores was also among the students who shared that the current uncertainty undocumented immigrant families face in the United States had deepened the appreciation of her mother, Jesuita Sanchez, for a family photograph taken of her alongside her family in 1974 by a fellow town resident as they came of age and enjoyed town life in Tzicatlan, Puebla together.[17] Flores described this family photograph featuring her mother’s cousin, siblings, and herself as among the few times in their lives in which they were able to enjoy time together as a family, in the same location, and in a situation in which they could afford to take a photograph.  Preserving this trace of a moment in which they were not pressured to migrate within and beyond Mexico continuously or worry about U.S. border enforcement measures had proven emotionally helpful to both her mother and Flores. She shared that it had prevented her mother from losing sight of the entirety of her family’s history, most specifically unforgettably joyful moments.

Upon concluding this workshop, students shared that it had been restorative to consider and discuss how the people we care about have preserved and discussed their emotive immigration histories. It resonated as a generative approach to considering the undocumented dimensions of immigration, the immigrant experience, and immigration history together and at our campus. Our focusing on the documentation and rationales behind emotive immigration histories resonated as productive vantage points towards identifying how a diversity of generations of immigrants with varying immigration statuses and perspectives on immigration have responded to the US government’s enforcement of its borders. Discussing the forethought, care, and resourcefulness with which their own immigrant family relatives and friends had invested in documenting and learning from their emotional intelligence for their and their family’s sake allowed students to not lose sight of the attentiveness and dedication with which older generations of immigrants had faced the pressures of US border enforcement measures and programs. Such sensibility deepened students’ appreciation for having invested in enriching their emotional intelligence together via this workshop. Moreover, I hope that it serves as an example of what we can achieve and share when we embrace emotive immigration history as a seminal pathway towards facing our feelings concerning immigration, most especially US border enforcement measures and programs within and beyond California together.


Notes

[1] Writing assignment submitted to the author by Adelaida Gutierrez, University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Adelaida Gutierrez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect she and her family’s confidentiality.

[2] The author will reflect on student course assignments and discussions undertaken in her course offerings, exhibition project, and workshop on immigration history and the Chicana/o-Latina/o experience at UC Irvine during the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years.

[3]  Priya Krishnakumar, Joe Fox, and Ally Levine, “What’s next for DACA and the nearly 800,000 people protected by it,” Los Angeles Times, 6 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-na-pol-daca-future/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Teresa Watanabe, “UC President Janet Napolitano blasts Trump’s DACA decision,” Los Angeles Times, 5 September 2017, http://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-essential-education-updates-southern-uc-president-napolitano-blasts-trump-s-1504627146-htmlstory.html.

[7] Krishnakumar, Fox, and Levine, “What’s Next for DACA.”

[8] This article is informed by and attempts to build on the scholarship of Roberto G. Gonzalez, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

[9] Adelaida Gutierrez.

[10] Ibid.

[11] This quote is a part of “Gorditas de Nata,” a writing assignment submitted to the author by Mariana Rodriguez, University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Mariana Rodriguez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect the student and her family’s confidentiality.

[12] This quote is a part of “Memories We Did Not Leave at the Border,” a writing assignment submitted to the author by Diego Hernandez, at the University of California, Irvine, June 2016. “Diego Hernandez” is a pseudonym I gave the student to protect the student and his family’s confidentiality.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Information about Delfina Palomares’ emotive immigration history and thoughts about the promise of The Material of Memory were collected and provided as part of conversations with and a course assignment submitted to the author by Stephanie Palomares, University of California, Irvine, December 2016.

[15] Information about Juanita Magdalena Garza’s emotive immigration history and thoughts about the promise of The Material of Memory were collected and provided as part of conversations with and a course assignment submitted to the author by Esmeralda Hic, University of California, Irvine, December 2016.

[16] Information about Mercedes Pinedo’s emotive immigration history were submitted and provided as part of the Revisiting Immigration History workshop group by Andres Oceguera Pinedo to the author, University of California, Irvine, March 2017.

[17] Information about Jesuita Sanchez emotive immigration history were submitted and provided as part of the Revisiting Immigration History workshop group by Marleni Flores to the author, University of California, Irvine, March 2017.

 

Ana Elizabeth Rosas is an associate professor of history and Chicano/Latino Studies at UC Irvine. She is the author of Abrazando El Espiritu: Bracero Families Confront the US-Mexico Border (UC Press, 2014), which received the Immigration and Ethnic History Society’s Theodore Soloutos Memorial Book Award for the best book on immigration history.

 

Copyright: © 2017 Ana Marie Rosas. 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

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

Golash-1ed

Tanya Golash-Boza
Zulema Valdez

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Golash-3 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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