Tag: Religion


Ayahuasca-naut: A Zen Student’s Experiment with Shamanic Medicine


Nick Shindo Street

A hallucinogenic brew called ayahuasca is having a heyday in the United States. Rolling Stone, Fusion, VICE and other trend-spotting news outlets have posted stories about spiritual adventurers tripping on the stuff during private rituals in hipster outposts like Brooklyn and Berkeley as well as remote jungle settings in Central and South America.

The thick, earthy tea is concocted from a complementary pair of plants that grow in the rain forests of the Western Hemisphere. Depending on whom you ask, ayahuasca—called “the mother” by devotees—opens the doors of perception, provides a window onto the soul, lures naïve Westerners into the heart of darkness or crams a decade of psychotherapy into a few hours.

The legal status of ayahuasca is ambiguous in the United States, though it has been used in shamanic rituals for centuries.

Why is this ayahuasca’s moment? A recent piece in The New Yorker[1] framed the popularity of ayahuasca as yet another wellness fetish in the current “Age of Kale.” That breezily dismissive conclusion doesn’t account for the uptick in ritual use of the brew among people who aren’t chasing the latest Burning Man-inspired fad. For example, in a segment of its special digital series on mental health care, CBS News[2] examined the buzz—and controversy—around Veterans for Entheogenic Therapy (VET). VET organizes retreats where ayahuasca is used to treat service members suffering from depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

That focus on physical and emotional experience, particularly the experience of trauma and the search for healing, highlights an important but underreported trend: Though millions of Americans, particularly young adults in big coastal cities, are dropping out of organized religion, many of those dropouts are still looking for experiences of self-transcendence. That can mean volunteering at a homeless shelter, learning meditation or simply cultivating a sense of “something bigger than myself.” For some religious “nones”—those who check “none of the above” on religious identification surveys—self-transcendence also entails the ritual use of ayahuasca. And nowhere are these broad developments more apparent than California, which for decades has served as an engine for both counterculture and religious disaffiliation in the United States.

A “none” whom I’ll call Brianna unexpectedly introduced me to one of California’s ayahuasca subcultures during an interview about Brianna’s involvement with a secularized form of Buddhist meditation.

Brianna and I agreed to meet on a shady patio outside a coffee shop at the Farmers Market on Fairfax—it was midafternoon on a warm weekday in Los Angeles. Brianna, a financial consultant, had told me she would be coming from a workout, and that I should look for a woman in her late 20s with long, auburn hair wearing a gray tank-top and running tights.

I was instantly envious of Brianna’s arms. She had the guns of someone who manages a handstand with aplomb, who can lob a medicine ball into next Tuesday.

Not surprisingly, self-discipline and a no-nonsense approach to life quickly emerged as two of Brianna’s strongest character traits.

“I started out very skeptical,” Brianna said of her initial experience with a university-based research center that has become a leader in teaching meditation practices that have been stripped of their religious trappings. “It’s kind of like, you know, this is for hippies, and I’m not a hippie.”

Brianna said that as she deepened her level of participation in the mindfulness program and cultivated her own regular meditation practice, she noticed changes in herself that she liked.

“It’s definitely an effective tool,” she said. “Being able to distance yourself in a healthy way from emotions or experiences, you don’t have to rationalize everything. You just experience it and move on.”

Brianna, a Southern California native, grew up nominally Catholic and still believes in what she calls “a higher power.” But rather than identifying that power as the God of traditional Christianity, she said she equates it with the sense of awe she feels when she is in nature or when she contemplates the infinite vastness of the night sky.

As we began to wrap things up, I asked Brianna whether there was anything important about her story that we’d not covered. “Yes,” she replied. Then she told me that over the past year and a half, she had participated in three ayahuasca rituals.

“I was super skeptical about that too,” she said. “But now I’m a believer.”

Unlike members of the 1960s counterculture who used psychedelics to “tune in and drop out,” many of today’s religious “nones” are both squarely in the mainstream of American professional life and willing to experiment with spiritual technologies that are more typically associated with the cultural fringe. Erik Davis, a scholar of contemporary American esoteric spirituality and author of Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscapes,[3] has observed this paradoxical trend first-hand: “In my work,” Davis said, “I’ve encountered people from a science background or secular background who are concerned about losing their reason, but who are also happy to see that there’s a way to engage the weird stuff,” like psychedelics.

Davis added that the willingness of more-or-less secular seekers like Brianna to scratch their spiritual itches by using ayahuasca “blows my mind.”

“Even in the psychedelic world,” Davis said, “ayahuasca is fucking hardcore. Its visionary dimension is robust and bizarre. But psychedelics are very plastic, and your intention helps to shape the experience.”

In keeping with her pragmatic approach to both mindfulness and shamanic medicine, Brianna said that while all three ayahuasca rituals were useful for her, her most recent experience was life altering: “It was one of the best experiences in my entire life. Perhaps the best.”

She described lying on a meditation mat in a state between consciousness and unconsciousness while the shaman chanted, drummed and made his way around the room to administer healings to Brianna and the other participants. During the last ritual she attended, she said experienced “pure joy” for several hours.

I asked Brianna whether she thought ayahuasca was compatible with the discipline and insights she’s developed through her meditation.

“They’re definitely complementary,” she said. “The idea is that ayahuasca, the plant, she gives you what you need at the time. She can be harsh sometimes or she can be very loving. I’ve only had good experiences so far.”


On a Wednesday night a few weeks later, I sat on a small pallet of bedding that I’d made for myself and swayed gently as the shaman’s chanting shifted into a languid, sweetly melancholy register.

The room was dimly lit—the only sources of illumination were a small candle and cool, silver-white streetlight seeping through sheets of creamy parchment that our host had used to cover the big windows in the living room of his house on L.A.’s Westside. There were eight other participants, along with the shaman and his attendant. The shaman—about six feet tall with short, shaggily cropped dark hair—was a Frenchman who had traveled to the Peruvian Amazon to find a cure for his heroin addiction. He spent the next ten years in the jungle as an apprentice to an indigenous medicine man.

His attendant was a fifty-something psychotherapist whose pale shawl and shoulder-length gray-blonde hair gave her a ghostly appearance as she moved around the room to check on us and administer healings.

Our little nests of blankets and pillows outlined the perimeter of the space, creating a semicircle in front of the darkly patterned rugs and tapestries that demarked the shaman’s altar. Close at hand, the shaman had a large green bottle of ayahuasca, a small octagonal drum, a wooden whistle and a feather-duster-sized bundle of papery leaves that evoked the sound of birds flapping through a forest when he shook it.

Smoke from mapacho, the Amazonian tobacco that often grows near the ayahuasca vine, hung in the air.

At the start of the ritual, the shaman told us that his singing—a combination of North and South American indigenous languages as well as a shamanic version of speaking in tongues—was meant to shape the flow of energy in the room rather than convey any sort of meaning. While he was explaining this, I was clinging to a small plastic bucket. Ayahuasca often causes intense vomiting, and in a few minutes I was retching with such gusto that, at one point, the shaman stopped chanting and said, “Nick, you need to get control of your mind.”

After the purging came the visions. In the kind of half-conscious state that Brianna had described in recounting her experience, I became vividly aware of the toxic mixture of shame and self-loathing that I’d marinated in as a closeted gay kid growing up in Alabama during the 1970s and ’80s. At one point I even glimpsed myself as a fetus, absorbing metaphysical poison through the umbilicus while I was still in my mother’s womb.

“Fuck that,” I said, banishing dark, smoky tentacles of shame that were trying to wrap themselves around me.

Dramatic insights like that are common during long meditation retreats. I’ve been a Zen practitioner for fifteen years, ordained as a priest in 2007 and soon thereafter moved into a small Buddhist temple.

Zazen (Zen meditation) and the shamanic use of ayahuasca are both spiritual technologies designed to help seekers cultivate a state of awareness freed from the distortions of reality caused by tightly held beliefs, concepts, and other habits of mind.

Carefully managed rituals traditionally surround both practices. These lattices of sound, spectacle, and movement act as a psychological container for the powerful emotional energies—awe, wonder, fear and anger, for example—that are often uncorked in the process.

A couple of times over the course of the ayahuasca ritual, the visions and physical sensations I was experiencing became almost too much to bear—for example, at one point I watched my body become transparent. At another, I felt myself melting into a liquid form. Seeing the sweater at the foot of my bed writhe like an earthworm was also disconcerting. Some prior instructions from my Zen teacher (“no matter what happens, just relax and float downstream”) helped me navigate most of those intense experiences and waves of feeling.

Toward the end of the ritual, a bout of paranoia sent me crawling (I couldn’t walk) out of the circle and onto a poolside patio. After several veteran ayahuasca-nauts failed to coax me back inside—their voices seemed out of sync with their mouths when they spoke, which didn’t help my anxiety—the shaman himself intervened: “You’re safe here,” he said as he held me by the shoulders, “and everyone here loves you.”

That did the trick. I was embarrassed by the group’s exuberance when I finally rejoined the circle. The room was suffused with golden light, and I wept in response to the intense love that I felt as the ritual reached a crescendo and began to wind down.“You have to remember that you’re always looking into your own mind,” my Zen teacher told me when I recounted my experiences to him the next day. “It’s your fear or your joy. And fear and joy are just more thinking. Don’t grab onto them and just go back to your practice—that’s staying in the circle!”

These insights into psyche and the numinous are by no means unique to Zen or the ritual use of ayahuasca. In my work as a journalist covering religion, I’ve interviewed many people who have had similar experiences during Pentecostal prayer, yogic breathing, and other spiritual practices.

Some of these paths intersect or even overlap. For example, there’s a connection between the kind of spiritual yearning that often attracts people to Zen as well as ayahuasca—specifically, the desire to see reality as it is, not filtered or refracted through the lenses of belief and cultural conditioning.

That’s why ayahuasca is the spiritual doorway of choice for many seekers in the age of religious “nones.” While some young adults are leaving organized religion to pursue decidedly unspiritual materialistic goals, many other “nones” are looking for firsthand experiences of absolute reality, which they feel the doctrines of traditional religion have obscured.

In the case of Brianna and other religious “nones,” the intention that guides their spiritual seeking is to connect with the sublime or divine in a purely experiential way that casts aside rigid ethical formulas and speculative theologies.

“I know that there’s some higher power,” Brianna said. “But do I think we have to follow any specific rules, and is there an afterlife? Like, no.”

Brianna added that the goal of life is the happiness that comes from being a good person—someone who works to create productive lives for herself and others. That hopeful formulation impressed me as good medicine for heartsick times.

“I suspect this kind of seeking is happening everywhere,” Erik Davis said, “even if California is the most obvious example. Through technology and media, we’re all kind of California now.”


  • Special thanks to Alex and Allyson Grey of the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (http://cosm.org/) for the kind use of their art, and also to Mark McCloud.

[1] Ariel Levy, “The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale,” The New Yorker, 12 September 2016.

[2] Roman Feeser, “State of Mind Episode 2: Hidden Battles,” CBS News, 10 May 2017.

[3] Erik Davis, The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006).


Nick Shindo Street is the senior writer with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. His reporting on religious movements, politics, sexuality, popular culture and news media has appeared in Religion & Politics, Nieman Reports, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera America, Global Post, Religion Dispatches, The Jewish Journal and Patheos.

Copyright: © 2017 Nick Shindo Street. 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/



Danza de Los Superhéroes: Zapotec Immigrant Tradition in Transnational Transfer

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Angel Sáncez (Captain America) and Antonio Mazas (Hulk) take a break between performances during the annual celebration of the Yalalag community in Los Angeles

Leopoldo Peña

Just west of downtown Los Angeles, in a derelict American Craftsman house, a group of Zapotec immigrants from Yalalag, a small town in southern Mexico, rush around the dining room.[1] Here in Los Angeles, they’re getting ready for another performance, requiring attire chosen from a wardrobe of popular and global appeal. Outside in the backyard there is a celebration and a growing audience of more indigenous Mexican immigrants.

Most in attendance are Yalaltecos,[2] and other immigrants from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Like in their Mexican hometown, Yalaltecos gather to celebrate patron saint days. For this particular saint day, they are celebrating a major Catholic figure, Santiago Apostle, the eponymous patron saint of the gathered community, and the religious icon that brings together the Yalalag community in Los Angeles in a similar way that it unites Yalaltecos in their hometown in Mexico.

For Santiago Apostle’s day, the audience has waited a year, and will wait a bit more, as the backyard fills with people under LA’s relentless summer sun. The saint sits on its handcrafted altar, and the audience waits patiently while watching folkloric performances produced as replicas of the acts from the Mexican community of origin. This is the annual feast, a celebration that reconnects the community as a people despite being immigrants of foreign soil. This year’s celebration, however, finds the attending DJ announcing a forthcoming surprise: “There will be a special dance in this year’s celebration… in a few minutes!”

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Antonio Mazas (Hulk) and Angel Sanchez (Captain America), stand guard to the St. Santiago Apostle during the annual celebration of the Yalalag community in Los Angeles.

Hurriedly, the men dig into backpacks and plastic bags. Amid the haste, pieces of outfits are scattered around the floor and the dining room instantly becomes a messy wardrobe. As the men look for new garments, the traditional wooden masks are set to rest and new ones come out to play. On the dining table a range of faces emerge as masks look up emptily at the ceiling, expecting coming conjurers.

Sharing the same table, the masks exhibit different origins. Some were homemade in Los Angeles, while others were mass-produced, likely in China. The first are imported replicas of traditional models and show largely exaggerated facial expressions: brightly colored inflated cheeks, protruding lips, and swollen eyeballs. The second are more conventional, modeled on popular American comic book characters—plastic façades recognized the world around for their heroic and superhuman qualities: unmeasured anger, strength, and infinite power as it is for Hulk, Captain America, and Thor.

For the wooden masks, at an average cost of $40 each, a communal endeavor of cultural reproduction was required. Dancers, their wives, parents, and children shared funds and know-how, either to import paraphernalia or produce the masks at home for a dance now being reenacted on foreign U.S. soil, and by a new generation. For this particular performance, the traditional wooden masks were brought to Los Angeles by relatives who migrate back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. These masks, like other mass-produced ones, came to the performance at the annual celebration of Saint Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles via global circulation. At the event, the masks, like the religious figure, are images of limitless reproducibility, of invaluable unifying potential, and thus stand in as cohesive devices for all in attendance.

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Bernardo Velasco (Ninja Turtle) and Antonio Mazas, members of Familia Zapoteca, get ready to perform at the annual celebration of St. Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles.

Unity grounded on Catholicism, however, rarely demands a specific day when the point is to feel at home, far from home. It could be any day, any saint in Los Angeles. Or so it is for Luis Delgado, the Zapotec immigrant from Yalalag, Oaxaca, who arranged the performance at the Saint Santiago Apostle celebration on this particular day.

When Delgado came to Los Angeles over a decade earlier, he found a group of men enacting the traditional ‘danzas’ of his hometown. In time, he joined the group that became: Grupo de Danza Familia Zapoteca.[3]

Familia Zapoteca, now going through a second generation of dancers, is a combination of migrants and U.S. citizens who despite the status difference don’t mind dancing to the same tune. And because the dance group unites different generations, Delgado decided a couple of years ago to assemble a performance that would appeal to the current dancers and attract a younger crowd of U.S.-born Yalaltecos. He thus began outfitting one of the group’s choreographies in American popular characters.

To put idea into action, he instructed the dancers to turn into characters they always wanted to be: Captain America, Batman, Superman, Deadpool, Thor, Ninja Turtles, Hulk, Wolverine… and of course, Chapulín Colorado, the only visible sign of real pop Mexican heroism.

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Eulogio Ríos (Thor), Seferino Ignacio (Chapulín), and Luis Delgado (Wolverine), members of Familia Zapoteca, prepare to perform at the annual celebration of St. Santiago Apostle in Los Angeles.

Once Familia Zapoteca turns into this set of makeshift characters, they become “Los Superhéroes,” an assortment of comic book expressions that line up behind a brass band. They sync immediately to the band’s quick tempo and take the stage of communal gatherings, often held on backyards’ flat concrete patios.

For these self-made heroes, audiences wait, as they did at Santiago Apostle’s celebration, and as they frequently do at Oaxacan celebrations in Los Angeles. Invariably, though, whether as superheroes or in any other form, Familia Zapoteca comes as a surprise. Each act, selected from a repertoire of over twenty possible performances, is an opportunity to extemporaneously engage people in the audience; to invite them to relate through the culturally shared elements the characters represent. At least, that was the purpose Luis Delgado had in mind when he organized the performance in 2014.

Now, as performed, Los Superhéroes is no joke. Its performative function is one where Familia Zapoteca breathes new life into a dance tradition that enables them to make sense of being in diaspora.

However, Los Superhéroes was not really Luis Delgado’s idea originally. It came to him from Oaxaca as part of the transnational exchanges that connect Los Angeles-based Oaxacans to their villages in Mexico.[4] For Delgado, this particularly inspiring exchange happened in the form of a homemade DVD that a relative sent him from Yalalag, his own hometown in Oaxaca.

The DVD featured a visual rendition of what could very well be the first satirical enactment of American superheroes in a traditional celebration from Yalalag. The visual rendition thus presented an instance where the dance tradition, through the performance of the superheroes, confronted Yalaltecos from their own town with the specter of their own migrants living in the United States. Upon watching and replaying the DVD in Los Angeles, Delgado set out to replicate what was conveyed through the recording as a process of mimesis, a cultural reenactment that displayed the social and symbolic remittances that migration enables so that a community in diaspora remains interconnected.

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Asai Alejo (Deadpool) stands ready to perform as a superhero for members of the San Andrés Yaa community in Los Angeles.

In Yalalag, where the DVD was recorded, when the ‘superheroes’ first appeared, the act was within the parameters of the traditional dances commonly known as ‘danzas chuscas,’ or funny dances.[5] Through such dances, performed mostly by men, the Yalalag community parodies other communities, taking elements of their identity. One well-known example, and perhaps one of the first acts that started the ‘danzas chuscas,’ was when a dance group in Yalalag enacted the ‘danza de los mixes.’ The Mixe region, like Yalalag, is in northern Oaxaca, and the Mixe have been customarily derided for being too traditional, according to nationally recognized Zapotec writer and cultural promoter, Javier Castellanos.[6]

Since the 1980s the danzas chuscas have been directed at immigrants returning home from abroad. For Yalaltecos in Oaxaca, the U.S.-based immigrants embody traces of assimilated American values, which the performances reenact as a form of cultural resistance and social critique with the intention of cultivating self-reflection.[7]

Through parody and tradition, that first time the live performance of the ‘superheroes’ came to Yalalag, it arrived as an unsolicited trade and was welcomed as a reminder of distant members navigating other cultures. There in Oaxaca, Yalaltecos got to see, in a single act, the visual and symbolic dimension of transnational migration. In all its brevity, the performance was a single act of American fictional heroism that assaulted Yalalag from within, disappeared into the lens of a video camera and turned out into a DVD that was then exported to Los Angeles.[8]

For Delgado in Los Angeles, replaying the performance from the imported DVD was more than symbolic and satirical. It was an overdue epiphany. As he blankly stared at the streaming video, he understood that cultural distance had been somewhat bridged. What he once perceived as culturally foreign was now, in fact, his own. For him, Yalaltecos in his hometown had embraced the image of the superheroes as a proper sign, much in the same way he had long ago accepted that same image as part of who he is as an immigrant in the U.S. So, when he decided to recreate the performance, he chose not to do it as a form of social critique, but for more meaningful reasons.

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Familia Zapoteca performing the “danza de los payasos” during the celebration of St. Francis of Assisi organized by the San Francisco Yatee community in Los Angeles.

In Delgado’s version, the performance became a way of paying tribute to the audacity of the Yalalag performers, who figured out that beneath American mainstream characters, traditional practices are reproduced. But above all, his Los Angeles version was a way of projecting to the local audience a new sense of self by recognizing that one can be part of the U.S., and especially California, without ceasing to be Zapotec and specifically, Yalalteco.

After a few trial runs, and some minor negative responses from community members, Los Superhéroes became a crowd favorite. The reason is simple: “The dance allows young kids to identify with each character and see how their favorite character connects to their culture and traditions. And that is the dream of any kid,” Delgado said.[9]

Representing the dreams of young children might be just a projection of the dancers’ own desires, but that is not all what Familia Zapoteca enacts. Since the success of Los Superhéroes in 2014, the group continues to enact the performance and has added other singular acts to the repertoire. For instance, “Los cocineros” pays tribute and satirizes the numerous members of their community who work in the food industry. As it specifically relates to men, Los cocineros points to shifting gender roles, and comments on the fact that immigrant men must enter the kitchen setting for economic survival.

Another performance, “Los turistas,” references the modern Hawaiian-shirt tourist that hordes ethnic paradises in the third world. It also, quite possibly, alludes to the returning immigrant who enters the community of origin as a temporal visitor.

In “Los payasos,” the group embodies the popular figure of the clown, as to take to the extreme the satirical nature of their dance tradition. And, in “La danza de Santa Claus,” the yearly act with which the group celebrates and ends a long year of performances, an empty-handed Santa Claus comes in a shopping cart, to make communion with an immigrant Zapotec community celebrating yet another Catholic festivity, this time Christmas.

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Members of Familia Zapoteca arrive as Santa Claus at a community Christmas celebration in Los Angeles.

In all, the performances are new only superficially and each is new only momentarily. In due time, just as other performances have become integral acts of Yalaltecos’ dance selection, “Los Superhéroes” will secure a place in that list of possible acts, or at least the current dancers seem to expect this to happen.

Asai Alejo, who performs as Deadpool, likes to think that the superheroes will remain in the Yalalag dance tradition as a reminder of what his generation contributed.

“Children love the dance… and I hope that the dance will remain as part of the other acts we perform because it is something we have accomplished. And I hope it can continue for many years to come,” Alejo said.[10]

Alejo speaks with self-assurance and without a hint of satirical intent. He is hopeful and confident because he knows that behind the paper-plate shield of Captain America, deep beneath the backpacks bulging out Santa Claus’s belly, and the countless folded garments that shape up the characters, there lays the fundamental grain of a tradition that allows the dancers to sustain a dance that incorporates what is foreign into their own. For that reason, the dancers rehearse each step arduously.

At weekly practices, dancers line up face to face in two parallel rows. As the music begins, each dancer steps forward then strides side-to-side, and the rows move in opposite directions. At each step, they pace gleefully and rotate around each other. As if forming couples, they raise arms high and faces look jauntily into the horizon beyond the backyard of the American Craftsman house, where Familia Zapoteca earnestly practices for upcoming performances.

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Familia Zapoteca rehearsing for a performance. The group was founded by Zapotec immigrants from the Yalalag community in Oaxaca, Mexico.


  • All photos taken by Leopoldo Peña.

[1] Zapotecs are one of the largest indigenous people in southern Mexico. The Zapotecs, like other Mexican Indigenous groups, began migrating to the United States in the 1980s.

[2] Yalalteco/a is the Spanish term for natives of Yalalag.

[3] Translated, “Zapotec Family Dance Group.”

[4] Another feature of the transnational aspect of the performance is the importation of music scores. For these, the dancers share the expenses for having a musician in their hometown produce a score sheet that a Los Angeles-based band plays for the performances. For details on how transnationally plays out in indigenous Mexican migrant communities see Jonathan Fox and Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, Indigenous Mexican Migrants in the United States, Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, UCSD/Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, 2004, and Lynn Stephen, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

[5] Funny is a literal translation of “chusca/o”; however, within the semantics of the performance, “chusca/o” contains a stronger element of parody, satire and intent to caricature.

[6] Personal interview, 3 August 2016, Los Angeles.

[7] For a discussion of how “danzas chuscas” engages questions of gender and class differences, see Adriana Cruz-Manjarrez, “‘Danzas Chuscas’ Performing Migration in a Zapotec Community,” Dance Research Journal 40 (2008): 2-33.

[8] Performances, even funerals, in Los Angeles are also recorded and these recordings are sent to Oaxaca as well.

[9] Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.

[10] Personal interview, 24 June 2016, Los Angeles.


Leopoldo Peña is a Mexican-immigrant, photographer, and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Irvine. His dissertation focuses on photography in early twentieth century Mexico, and maintains interest in Zapotec literary production.

Copyright: © 2017 Leopoldo Peña. 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/


Writing Orange County

Orange County flag design, 1968

Orange County flag design, 1968, courtesy of Orange County Archives via Flickr.

Elaine Lewinnek

Naming a literary depiction of Orange County is no easy task. One or two sitcoms that describe the place may come to mind, along with movies depicting decadent capitalism or theme parks of overly-controlled leisure. Some may know the songs that offer resistance to that glossy, shallow image of Orange County. But novels or poetry? Those seeking literary guides to Southern California have had David Ulin’s magisterial Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 2002), but now those seeking the literature of Orange County have their own guide: Lisa Alvarez’s and Andrew Tonkovich’s anthology, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide (Heyday, 2017). Drawing from community-college literary magazines as well as literary luminaries, this is a work of impressive research and discovery. Arranged geographically and then, within each region, chronologically, this book portrays an Orange County of consummate surprise.

There are no Stepford wives here. While Michael Chabon’s short story “Ocean Avenue” features a beautiful woman of leisure buying coffee in exercise clothes, she is neither one-dimensional nor docile; she’s unforgettable. And she is not alone. Her neighbor, in this anthology, might be a large Gullah-speaking mother of two football stars, displaced from home and determinedly seeking public space in her red tile roof and white stucco walled condo development, depicted in Susan Straight’s I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots. Beekeepers, bicyclists, day laborers, artists, fishermen, surfers aggressively protecting their turf, Vietnamese immigrants protesting each other, Iranian teenagers desperate to fit in to a gated community painted endless shades of white, a lonely teenager who keeps giving her phone number to undocumented immigrants, the ghosts of an agrarian past, and a nervous young man serving an eviction notice at the beach mansion of his aging rock hero: this is a complex, divided, fractious, and deep depiction of Orange County. It is, in Aracelis Gormay’s poetry:

Santa Ana of grocery carts, truckers,
eggs in the kitchen at 4 am, nurses, cleaning ladies
the saints of ironing, the saints
of tortillas. Santa Ana of cross-guards, tomato pickers,
bakeries of bread in pinks & yellows, sugars.
Santa Ana of Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aztlán

The Orange County in view is a fictional one that many locals will recognize as true. It is also, in Lorene Delany-Ullman’s prose poetry, a space of “wetlands and weapons.” Violence, racism, and “the meeting of boom and loss,” in Tom Vanderbilt’s penetrating expression—all are here, in complicated histories bursting out beneath tidy suburban surfaces, like weeds pushing through sidewalk cracks.

In a region famous for its history of forgetting, to borrow Norman Klein’s title,[1] a place of “willful amnesia” where “a sales pitch… has always been substituted for history,” in D. J. Waldie’s depiction,[2] this is a book startlingly full of what the editors call, in their introduction to Lisa Alvarez’s poetry, “the contentious, unresolved history of Orange County’s suburban milieu, which is never far below the surface—if it’s below it at all.” Too literarily clear-eyed to be called nostalgic, there is still something close to nostalgia here as character after character laments the effects of development on beloved pieces of nature, while story after story faces paved-over land and dreams. In this book’s Orange County, a sense of place comes with a sense of history.

While good, this anthology is not perfect. The editors call the foothills area “the flatlands.” The excerpted stories by Christopher Isherwood and a few others end a bit abruptly. But like any anthology, this one serves up appetizers that may lead readers to investigate the fuller works of authors like James Blaylock, Martin Smith, Kem Nunn, or Anh Chi Pham. Gustavo Arellano’s “Foreword” mistakenly regrets the omission of Tom Vanderbilt’s Baffler piece about the Crystal Cathedral, which actually is included. Orange County’s oral histories, corridos, and church-newsletter literature also might have been included. But there is already so much in this volume that it seems churlish to state that it is unclear why the literature of Richard Henry Dana, Carey McWilliams, and Viet Thanh Nguyen are absent.

This book is for readers who relish knowing that LSD tablets were once dropped from an airplane to a crowd of hippies gathered in Laguna Beach, and that the unobstructed Santa Ana winds were once so strong they wore grooves in the floorboards of Jessamyn West’s house in Yorba Linda by repeatedly pushing the beds across the room. It is for those wanting to know “what’s been lost,” in Edward Humes phrase, or anyone who wants to name the history of what Tom Zoellner calls, in an essay written specifically for this anthology, “The Orange Industrial Complex.” The collection is for residents, students, teachers, tourists, and all who wish to understand America’s complicated suburbia.

This book, filled with empathy and environmentalism, is poetic critical geography. It is wonderful.



[1] Norman M. Klein, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, new and updated ed. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2008).

[2] Carolina A. Miranda, “How to look at Los Angeles: A conversation with D.J. Waldie, Lynell George and Josh Kun,” Los Angeles Times, 24 July 2015, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-how-to-see-los-angeles-dj-waldie-lynell-george-and-josh-kun-20150721-column.html.

Elaine Lewinnek is professor in the department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford, 2015), and is currently working on a bottom-up history of Orange County with Gustavo Arellano, Thuy Vo Dang, and Michael Steiner, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).

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


California from a Different Angle

Mike Miller

 A review of Fred B. Glass, From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

In this comprehensive look at California workers—their job experiences and living conditions, antagonisms among them and with the powers that be, their leaders and the rank and file, politicians who claimed to speak for them and some who actually did, their unions and allies, and much more—Fred Glass does for this history what Taylor Branch did in his trilogy account of major portions of the civil rights movement, The King Years. From Mission to Microchip is filled with stories, analysis, history and data. It is a good and important story, well told.

In Glass’s telling, the Franciscan Fathers, often portrayed by others as benign protectors of California’s Native Americans, are anything but. Shepherded into the string of California Missions along the state’s coast, Indians were exposed to diseases to which they were not immune, removed from their villages, forced to work long days at tasks foreign to them and their way of life, denied the right to practice their beliefs, and exploited in many other ways. Their numbers quickly dwindled to a shadow of their pre-colonization presence. When the Fathers were not directly the exploiters, they provided the direct abusers with the rationalization for treating “heathens” as less than human.

The Gold Rush is a similar tale of woe for many. Contrary to the myths, most of those who rushed to the mountains to pan its streams and rivers for riches ended up working for others, and receiving a pittance for their labors.


Glass takes us through other major moments in the state’s labor history: the struggle for the 8-hour day; the Workingmen’s Party, which briefly governed San Francisco and then rapidly declined in corruption; the growth of the Los Angeles labor movement, and its demise as a result of the bombing of The Los Angeles Times building by labor union activist James B. McNamara who confessed to the event that killed two dozen people; the 1930s farm labor organizing history; the growth of the Hollywood unions, and the anti-Communist campaign that dramatically weakened them; the San Francisco and Oakland general strikes; the growth of public employee unions; the revolt of women workers, the development of “equal pay for equal work” campaigns, and the formulation of “comparable worth” as a strategic idea for organizing women at work; the decline of industrial work and unions in the state; the dramatic SEIU “Justice for Janitors” campaign… and more.

Throughout most of this history, ethnic and racial antagonism divided California’s working class and made it easy for employers to play one group against another. Among the contending groups: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Irish, “Okies,” African-Americans, Filipinos. Glass emphasizes how destructive these divisions were for organizing.

There are moments when racial and ethnic rivalry and hostility are overcome, largely as a result of visionary labor organizers and leaders who persuade workers that they will not win justice without solidarity. Among the examples: the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Glass provides rich stories and analysis on how these moments of unity, sometimes stretching into years, were achieved.

Like the Taylor Branch trilogy, this book has its weaknesses. No book attempting to cover such a span of history can do so without omissions, exaggerations, errors and other problems. I found some of these particularly in the areas where I have the greatest expertise and direct experience. A significant bibliography directs those wanting to delve more deeply into particular pieces of this history.

Although Glass does mention the religious factor, the book exhibits a strange tone-deafness to the role religion plays and played in California (and other) labor history.

For example, during World War II, it was Catholic leadership in ILWU Local 10 that led efforts to maintain earlier won and contractually agreed upon workplace rule gains. There is no mention of Fr. Andrew Boss and the Jesuit University of San Francisco’s Labor-Management School. Ditto for the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists’ ILWU member James Kearney who won ten single year terms as president of Local 10 (by constitutional rule, elected officials can hold full-time office for only two consecutive years before returning to waterfront work). The ironically named Boss challenged Harry Bridges and other leadership close to the Communist Party, and kept that leadership on its toes in the protection of workplace gains by offering a rival center of leadership training.

Missing in Glass’s ILWU account is the fact that the International supported urban renewal (known as “Negro removal”) in San Francisco’s Western Addition, and that a rank-and-file Local 10 vote overcame Bridges post-World War II recommendation against accepting temporary African-American workers into “A-Book” (first class) union membership. (Bridges feared major post-war layoffs.)

In the case of the United Farm Workers, the problem is greater. There is no mention of the Protestant California Migrant Ministry, and the roles played in UFW by Reverends Chris Hartmire, Jim Drake (who led the union’s boycott division), Gene Boutillier (who was, for a period, the union’s legislative lobbyist) and other of its staff members who were important full-time workers for the union. Nor is there mention of Marshall Ganz as UFW’s director of organizing and his rootedness in the Jewish social justice tradition and faith.

César Chávez National Moument (NPS) Flags

Flags at César Chávez National Monument: U.S, California, UFW, and a César Chávez banner. Jim Galvin via Flickr.

The controversy caused within UFW by Chavez accepting an award from Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos is acknowledged, but its devastating impact on church support for UFW is not. (It also alienated Chavez from key Filipino leaders and other rank-and-file union members, as well as from many of the student volunteers.)

The meaning for Chavez of “the march” from Delano to Sacramento is also misunderstood in its portrayal by Glass. It was an important factor in the passage of state collective bargaining legislation for farm workers. However, “Peregrinación” (pilgrimage) and “Penitencia” (penitence for sins) were intended for exactly what the words mean. It was secular people who called it a “march.”

Frank Bardacke’s book, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, is central to understanding the union. Bardacke explains why: “What many of the liberals and radicals on the staff of the union could never understand was that all the fasts, the long marches and the insistence on personal sacrifice…were not publicity gimmicks, they were essential Chavez.”

Chavez emerged from the Community Service Organization (CSO), where he started as a rank-and-file member and became Executive Director. CSO, Glass tells us, “was supported by the Catholic Church….”  The conservative Los Angeles Archdiocese, whose Archbishop was characterized by Saul Alinsky as a “pre-historic muttonhead,” was anything but supportive. However, local priests, religious women and lay leaders were. That distinction is central to understanding Chavez’s training.

Alinsky’s central role in all this history is only tangentially mentioned by Glass. In addition to hiring Fred Ross and funding CSO, Alinsky’s training was the underpinning of the Migrant Ministry’s support for the union. And other bishops did support Chavez. Unfortunately, Bardacke’s book doesn’t help much in clarifying Alinsky’s role either.

Recognizing the impossibility of gaining official church sanction for CSO, and having had an earlier negative experience with a “coalition” organization, Alinsky-staffer Fred Ross developed an “individual membership” organization, rather than Alinsky’s usual “organization of organizations.” It was the discipline of one-to-one conversations, followed by house meetings, then a large membership meeting that taught Chavez how to build the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—predecessor to the UFW.

Glass is in good company. There are small, and some large, errors in the aforementioned King years trilogy by Taylor Branch. No single writer of broad histories like this can master all the facts. No matter. Both Glass and Branch make major contributions. And from these rich resources, those interested in particular aspects of the histories can dig more deeply into various periods, organizations, campaigns, and histories.

Thank you, Fred Glass, for this important book.


Mike Miller directs ORGANIZE! Training Center (OTC). His organizing background includes almost five years as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and directing a Saul Alinsky organizing project. In 1972, he started OTC. He has taught organizing within the University of California, at Stanford, San Francisco State University, Lone Mountain, Notre Dame, and University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee). He writes and lectures in the field. His books include, The People Fight Back: Building a Tenant Union, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, and the co-edited People Power:  The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky.

Copyright: © 2017 The Author(s). 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/


Lying in Plain Sight: La Jolla’s Assemblage of Religious Art

Rick Kennedy

On 8 September 2016, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the cross on Mount Soledad in San Diego, which may be the most litigated religious symbol in America, is here to stay. Set aside for a moment matters about separation of church and state on the coast of California and specific features that were part of the recent controversy, and an opportunity emerges to reflect on the role of the Mount Soledad cross in La Jolla’s larger assemblage of religious art, which includes University of California, San Diego’s Geisel Library, Snake Path, and the neon Virtues and Vices.

Assemblage is the art of proximity. Objects that individually evoke one meaning or experience when put in proximity to other things can change or expand that meaning or experience. Assemblage art can be a flower arrangement, a collage of images framed on a wall, or the placement of buildings or sculpture in artistic relationship to each other. Few people notice that in 1992, Alexis Smith, one of California’s most famous collage/assemblage artists, pulled together her grandest assemblage by uniting two buildings and the cross with her Snake Path on the ridge above La Jolla.

The Snake Path that unites the work was the last part constructed. The first was the cross on Mount Soledad; at 824 feet, it stands as the highest promontory on the coast that sits south of Orange County’s San Joaquin Hills. At 422 feet, Point Loma rises only half the height of Mount Soledad; and further north, Palos Verdes rises only a quarter the height (220 feet).

La Jolla was a bit of a bohemia before settling into its wealth. Molly McClain, a historian at the University of San Diego, quotes Ellen Scripps describing La Jolla as “a woman’s town.”As a progressive colony, it was friendly to spiritualists, scientists, theosophists, painters, and poets. But bohemia symbolically gave way to mainline Protestant culture when in 1913 a large wooden cross was placed in a reigning position on Mount Soledad. In 1954, the wooden cross was replaced with the twenty-nine-foot-tall concrete cross of mid-century modern design drawn by a prominent local architect named Donald Campbell. Like many of the coastal enclaves founded by progressive-minded, university-trained folks, La Jolla has a long history of racism, especially against Jews and East Asians. As a kind of post-1960s university-town backlash against its racist history, La Jollans, concerned about civil rights and separation of church and state, started in 1989 what became a long-standing ruckus demanding that the cross be taken down. Like all good art, the work is too meaningful. It communicates too much too well.

The UC San Diego library opened in 1970 and is a stunningly sculptured building. Its shape has become the UCSD brand image, designed by California’s most famous mid-century modernist, William Pereira. His work on the California Bight includes the initial designs of University of California, Santa Barbara; University of California, Irvine; the Malibu campus of Pepperdine University; the urban plan of Irvine; and the unfulfilled island plan for Santa Catalina Island. His most iconic buildings in California are San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid, the spider-like Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and UCSD’s central Library. Describing his design for the UCSD library, Pereira said he was sculpting a building inspired by hands joined at the wrist, fingers spreading wide, “holding aloft knowledge itself.”2

How did the library turn from cupped hands into the tree that is now the image most often associated with the library? Pereira thought up the cupped hands, and it fit his mental conception of a university; however, the site of the library screams trees to those who visit and listen. UCSD was built in the midst of a large forest of eucalyptus trees, and in 1983 the Stuart Collection of public art commissioned Robert Irwin’s Two Running Violet V Forms, an installation designed to enhance the experience of UCSD’s eucalyptus trees. A few years later, one of Robert Irwin’s students from when he taught for a short time at UC Irvine, Alexis Smith, was asked to produce another installation for the Stuart Collection. Irwin and Smith had studios near each other in Venice where, in the decades after World War II, a new artistic bohemia gathered that shared many ideas about how to think about art and themselves as artists.

Robert Irwin wrote in 1985 about how a sculpture should be “conditioned/determined” by its site. “This means,” he wrote, “sitting, watching, walking through the site, the surrounding areas…the city at large or countryside.”At UCSD, Irwin sat, watched, walked, and understood that it was the forest of eucalyptus trees that would determine his work. In the same way, Alexis Smith would have felt the same thing sitting, watching, and walking around the library, which itself in turn became conditioned and even determined by the trees; and the library as a tree—the tree of life, the tree of knowledge—would then condition and determine the Snake Path.

Another aspect of their thought was that an artist needs to get out of the way of art. Irwin in the late 1950s and 1960s became very interested in Zen Buddhism and went so far in his anti-individualist notions of art that he stopped signing his paintings. Art must increase, and the ego of the artist must decrease.Sharing in these artistic ideals, Alexis Smith, in a 2010 interview available on YouTube, says that she thinks of herself as a novelist who lets a story lead her rather than the other way around. She wants art to reveal itself through her work. The meaning of art, she declared, should be cultural, not personal. She tells viewers that she is not interested in herself or what she thinks. In her work as an assemblage artist, she works within the “pool of cultural information,” the stories that cultures carry through time.In the video, she talks specifically about the small-framed assemblages she creates; but at UCSD, she tapped into the great tradition of a snake at the center of Western culture’s religious story of sin, disease, health, salvation, and redemption.

To those of us who visit the UCSD library, the Snake Path sucks everything around it into its narrative. Deep culture calls out in a religious tableau of tree, snake, and granite statue of a book marked clearly as Paradise Lost. That Smith so obviously calls visitors to John Milton’s classic story of the birth of sin and sickness also demands, artistically, a fuller story of the tree in Eden being linked to the cross on Golgotha. Get above the eucalyptus trees that encircle the Snake Path in the upper floors of the library and the Mount Soledad cross rules the skyline. Tree and cross, in the deep literary culture derived from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there are types and antitypes that link history together. Early on, soon after the death of Christ, the stories of tree and cross were linked as antitypes: through the tree of disobedience in Eden came sin and death, and through the cross/tree of obedience on Golgotha comes salvation and life. Add to this someone standing at the end of the snake’s tail and looking away from the library is staring directly at another piece in the Stuart Collection: Bruce Nauman’s Vices and Virtues, the seven-foot-tall neon banner finished in 1988 that wraps the Charles Lee Powell Structural Systems Laboratory with Christianity’s seven vices and seven virtues. The snake’s body, then, links artwork about humanity’s ethical choices to the ultimate choice of disobedience or obedience at the snake’s head and in the distance on Mount Soledad.


It is significant that Smith inscribed a quote onto the granite oversized sculpture of Paradise Lost that stands, encircled, half way up by the snake’s body. The quote offers some meaning to the whole assemblage: Then Wilt Thou Not Be Loth To Leave This Paradise, But Shall Possess A Paradise Within Thee, Happier Far. When my students—and probably most passers-by—read it, they usually assume this is what the snake says to the biblical character Eve and believe that it is a promise to individuals about finding happiness—but it is not. In Paradise Lost, an angel says this line to Adam in a manner that draws in all creation. The quote on the book sculpture, then, hints to the cross on Mount Soledad off in the distance. This quote comes at the culmination of Milton’s epic when the archangel Michael tells Adam about the future coming of Christ and the eventual salvation of all creation. The angel Michael tells him of the redemption of the Earth:

…for then the Earth
Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier daies.

Adam then declares, speaking for himself and all who follow him, his final speech:

Greatly instructed I shall hence depart.
Greatly in peace of thought, and have my fill
Of knowledge, what this Vessel can containe;
Beyond which was my folly to aspire.
Henceforth I learne, that to obey is best,
And love with fear the onely God, to walk
As in his presence, ever to observe
His providence, and on him sole depend,
Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong, and worldly wise
By simply meek; that suffering for Truths sake
Is fortitude to highest victorie,
And to the faithful Death the Gate of Life;
Taught this by his example whom I now
Acknowledge my Redeemer ever blest.

Did Alexis Smith in 1992 plan to use the Snake Path to link the engineering building to the library in the context of the Mount Soledad cross? Maybe. By her own standards, it does not matter what she thought. The Mount Soledad cross is the dominant work of art that towers over Smith’s Snake Path. If Smith sat in, walked, watched, and listened at the site, then the cross, the library shape, and the Vices and Virtues might have consciously or unconsciously conditioned/determined what story would be artistically told on that site without her fully knowing it. A novelist can set up a story without knowing its ending or its full meaning. The La Jolla ridge itself might demand something about which an artist has only an inkling. Whatever the initial consciousness, we can recognize today that the La Jolla ridge has inscribed into it a massive work of religious art on the California coast. Although today it is hard to see all four parts from the ground, the whole assemblage is readily visible to airplane pilots, UFOs, angels, and anyone with access to Google Earth. Maybe it is best to think of this assemblage as a grand quadrapartite-geoglyph, bigger than the ancient Blythe Geoglyphs in the desert near the Colorado River and the ancient Serpent Mound in Ohio. However one thinks about it, we should recognize that the cross on Mount Soledad has a larger role as religious art than merely proclaiming Protestantism’s supposed cultural dominance over La Jolla.


1 Molly McClain, “The Scripps Family’s San Diego Experiment,” The Journal of San Diego History 56 (2010): 17.

2 James Steele, ed., William Pereira (Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 2002), 148.

3 Robert Irwin: Primaries and Secondaries: With Essays by Hugh M. Davies and Robert Irwin (San Diego: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008), 180.

4 Lawrence Weschler, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 41–85.

5 “Alexis Smith – Revealing Art in the Studio – The Artist’s Studio – MOCAtv,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VsNvgj8k8A (24 October 2016).


Rick Kennedy is a professor of history at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Educated at UCSB, mostly under cultural and architectural historian Harold Kirker, he recently published The First American Evangelical: A Short Life of Cotton Mather (Eerdmans).


Anthropologist as Court Jester: Civil Disobedience and The People’s Café

Nancy Scheper-Hughes


Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.

“Just remember, Nancy, that you and I are just ‘passing’ as academics.”
—George A. DeVos (“the Fox” in Flemish), University of California professor of anthropology

The first act of civil disobedience doesn’t come easily to most people. We are raised to be obedient; it requires considerable discernment to decide what matters enough to justify going against our sociable inclinations to conform, to not make waves, as my beloved Dad put it. The phone or the doorbell rings, and we answer it. The Star-Spangled Banner strikes up at a baseball game, and we rise to salute the flag and strain to reach the impossible notes of a ghastly anthem with its “bombs bursting in air,” its references to fire, destruction, blood, and the “pollution” of our enemies, the “terror of flight and the gloom of the grave.” But sing it we do, on cue. Then, suddenly, there is a tipping point that brings one to their senses. Following the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, something snapped back home in the United States. Some ordinary people began to sit tight during the singing of the national anthem in our ballparks. The bench sitters were pelted with hot dogs and mustard, with snow cones and soft ice cream. They were told to stand up like men, even if they were women. They were called traitors, scum, cowards, and Commies, and told to get out of America. But, like Horton the Elephant, they sat and they sat. They refused to remove their baseball caps or place their right hands over their hearts in a display of patriotic loyalty. That took a lot of moral courage.

As a young Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Northeast Brazil, my band of nonspecialist “sanitary engineers” (latrine diggers) and “barefoot paramedics” arrived soon after the 1964 military coup (fully supported by the CIA) that clobbered the impoverished sugarcane cutters who had begun to organize with the Ligas Componese, the Peasant League Movement. The military officers in Recife learned that the “squatters” of the shantytown, Alto do Cruzeiro, in rural Pernabuco were holding mass meetings and that Dona Nanci was organizing a squatters association (UPAC, the Union of the People of Alto do Cruzeiro) to address the lack of potable water, the hunger, the infant mortality, and the premature deaths from uncontrolled infectious disease. But it was the indignity of pauper burials in shallow, collective graves using borrowed municipal tin coffins that poor people could no longer endure. UPAC organized around the slogan “Six Feet Under and a Proper Coffin.”

One afternoon, two sweaty men in uniform came to my mud hut, perched near the top of the hillside shantytown, and accompanied me to military headquarters in Recife, where I was questioned. I spoke of the useless suffering and meaningless (premature) deaths of infants and “angel babies.” I was released but placed under surveillance and a form of house arrest. I was not allowed to leave the town of Timbauba during the military investigation of UPAC. I could not meet with more than three people at a time. No elections of local leaders could take place. All organizing had to stop, and I had to give a daily report of my activities to a local judge, Dr. Geraldo. Three months later a verdict was reached: UPAC was banned and my visa was to be revoked. I was told to leave Brazil.

My Peace Corps directors threatened that if I was forced to leave my post, they would pull the other 500 volunteers out of the country with me. A compromise was reached: UPAC could still function in circumscribed ways. Our infant-toddler daycare center (the crèche) ran as a parent co-op alongside a community kitchen to feed those who were in the greatest need. Over the protests of sugar plantation owners and cattle ranchers worried that thirsty squatters would squander water needed for agribusiness, the Secretary of Public Works provided water pipes. The pipes were installed, and a water pump and a large water tank were installed on the top of the shantytown. Literacy classes continued at night, and a few rural workers learned to read, write, and use alfabetizaçao within the forbidden contest of political conscientizaçao. I could leave with my head up and with a collective that kept the crèche working for several years after I left Brazil.

On return to the United States, I wasn’t ready to resume my studies and I joined SNCC (the Black-power-oriented Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and spent two years (1967 and 1968) in Selma, Alabama, and its rural surrounds, especially Wilcox and Lowndes counties where we gathered household, medical, and family data to support a class action suit (Peoples vs. the US Department of Agriculture) representing 500 Black farm families, tenant farmers, and sharecroppers who were being denied federal subsidies, food commodities, FHA loans, and cotton allotment checks that were due them. It took more than twenty years for that suit to wind its way through the federal courts.

In the spring of 1969, I moved to Berkeley to work as a research assistant for my undergraduate mentor, the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker, who had retired from Queens College and moved to North Berkeley where she lived next door to the Alfred and Theodora Kroeber compound on Arch Street. Her last research project was a study of “time and youth culture” in the Bay Area. Thanks to Hortense’s pressure, I applied to the graduate anthropology program at Berkeley. When Hortense died suddenly that summer, I was bereft and threw myself into the local political scene. I joined the first ragtag group of students and local activists to occupy the area that became known as People’s Park. Mayhem followed, including police shootings and demonstrations. I became pregnant and then became a single mother. But having lived among many single parents and grandparents with children, I learned from them how to manage.

Founding UC Berkeley Child Day Care Services

I joined a group of community activists and students who were trying to begin a student-parent child day care co-operative on the Berkeley campus. It was during this time that I met my husband Michael, a Harvard graduate and football player who suffered an injury that had disqualified him from the draft. His work as a child day care teacher alleviated some of his guilt about not serving in Vietnam. He had demonstrated against the war but would have fought in WWII, he said.

By the fall of 1970 we had negotiated with the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) and the university administration to use a vacant small redwood building on Galey Road, Girton Hall, while looking for a larger location. Girton could not handle more than fifteen children per hour, and the hours were distributed by a weekly lottery. Our attempts to be recognized and supported by the university administration failed. “We are not in the business of babysitting,” an assistant in the chancellor’s office told us. The collective decided to apply pressure by “occupying” the chancellor’s office with our infants and toddlers. We were to have been about twenty demonstrators or so, but when I arrived at 200 California Hall with my baby daughter, Jennifer, who I carried in a side sling, only two other mothers turned up. We managed to get inside the glass doors of the chancellor’s office and sat on the floor with our curious and playful toddlers; we said we would not leave until we could speak to then Chancellor Roger Heyns. However, the tables were turned, and we were locked down inside the reception area for several hours. The media came and dozens of our daycare parents cheered us on from outside. As our babies began to cry and needed their diapers changed, the university police finally let us leave without penalty.

What would we do next? I shared my experiences about the tactics of “occupations” that I learned in Brazil among the rural squatters who had occupied a rocky, steep hill (a rural favela) that they called Crucifix Hill, Alto do Cruzeiro. There, we had built a crèche for the children of rural workers whose infants were dying like flies as they left them home alone or in the care of other children or old neighbors—none of them capable caretakers. We did what Brazilians were doing all over the country, occupying land that was not being used.

We decided to apply the same tactics to our student-parent co-operative while we continued while we continued to investigate other buildings on campus that were under used. We chose a large basement in a high-rise university dorm on Durant Avenue and conducted a survey of the student residents to see if there were any objections to our using the site for our second childcare unit. The students were positive, and one morning we seamlessly executed the plan, bringing in cribs, playpens, blankets, and toys so that another thirty children of UC Berkeley students had access to the daycare co-operative.

There was one incident that put a chill on our project. An older graduate student with emotional problems related to a breakup with his wife set fire to a mattress that was used by the toddlers to play on. Luckily, the fire was set after the children had gone home, and it was immediately detected. Fire trucks arrived and extinguished it. Then the UC administration wisely closed that ad hoc childcare center and seriously began negotiating with us for the first time. The result was that the volunteer daycare teachers were employed under the title “lab technicians,” which they protested to the administration saying that they were not taking care of white mice or rats in a cage. By 1972, the Associated Students of the University of California administered the daycare program. Additional sites were negotiated, including childcare centers at the old Anna Head building near People’s Park, another in the basement of The First Congregational Church at Dana and Durant, and a year later at the Smyth-Fernwald UC Berkeley married student housing complex at the top of Dwight Way.

People’s Park: Installing The People’s Café

After I completed my doctorate in the anthropology department at Berkeley in 1976, my husband and I moved to Texas (Southern Methodist University) and then to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I taught for several years, returning to Cal in 1982 to join the anthropology department as a professor. It was the Golden Age of Anthropology at Berkeley, and I was lucky to have enjoyed sharing Kroeber Hall with so many brilliant scholars and dedicated fieldworkers. Meanwhile, however, People’s Park was going to seed: runaway teens, Vietnam vets with PTSD, and former patients of the old state asylums vied for space in the park. Faculty and students avoided the place, except for the occasional weekend concerts. The crack epidemic brought some unsavory people into the park, where they were wheeling and dealing. In the late 1980s, we met John Cooper, the founder of The Berkeley Catholic Worker. Every morning he rode into People’s Park in his green pickup truck bearing steaming vats of hot coffee and donuts. Cooper was an impossible, irascible Berkeley saint. He had a Ph.D. from Stanford in physics and a tough addiction to alcohol. When he hit rock bottom, he lived as a tramp. He managed to recovered enough to drive a taxi around town and it was during one those long rides through the city that he had his Saint Paul on the way to Tarsus moment. He looked at the homeless denizens of the Berkeley streets, empathized with them, and decided that he would spend the rest of his life trying to make their lives easier and more dignified. John claimed to be an atheist who had a single God experience, the one that pulled him toward a radical love for the homeless of People’s Park and his dedication to the Catholic Workers, an anarchist-socialist movement founded in NYC by Dorothy Day and Peter Marin in the 1930s to respond to the basic needs of the homeless during the Great Depression by opening Catholic Worker hospitality homes and ‘agronomic universities.’


Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.

Catholic Worker philosophy was based on a few principles: personalism, intimacy, pragmatism, and respect for the dignity and freedom of excluded individuals. In People’s Park, these included people without names and known only as “the Hate Man,” “Pig-Pen,” “the Orange Man,” Rosebud, and Gypsy. The Catholic Worker’s playbill also included radical action as needed. Over time, the Berkeley Catholic Workers broadened their commitment to include antinuclear protests and arrests at the Livermore Labs, along with various peace initiatives encouraged by our chaplain, the famous Father Bill O’Donnell, who taught us how to get arrested so as to maintain the dignity of both cops and demonstrators.

But primarily, the Berkeley Catholic Worker’s brief was to prepare and dispense gourmet breakfasts—old-fashioned Irish oatmeal and fresh cream, grits and cheese, hot croissants and Peet’s coffee (caf or decaf), and some weekend evening meals of hearty soups and stews (meat or vegetarian). “Why shouldn’t the homeless have choices?” John insisted. But serving hot meals out of an open, flatbed truck was not very convenient or dignified in the rainy season, and so John managed to wheedle some $50,000 from local donors so that our group could rent a nice, dry, and well-lit place in the vicinity of People’s Park.

An ideal space, managed by the university, close to the park was found, and John Cooper and I met with a dean—I forget who he was, but we called him the “Dean of Monies.” We explained our plans and how we would make sure that our CW hospitality house would be as well run and as integrated into the university community and campus as the ASUC child care program of which the university was quite proud. The dean’s answer to us was No, No, and Never. I recall looking at John, who for once in his life was totally defeated. He had worked so hard to pull together a significant amount of funds, and he had won the respect of the divided and divisive residents of People’s Park. It was heartbreaking; and although I was a full professor, totally dedicated to my students, to our doctoral program in critical medical anthropology, and to my research and writing, I was not willing to sacrifice the other part of my life, the life of a radical. I took one last look at John, and I said spontaneously to the dean: “Well, I guess we’ll just have to implement option two.” “And what would that be?’ the dean asked while John cocked his head at me, wondering what I had in mind. I replied, “We’ll just have to build a hospitality house in People’s Park.” “You do anything of the sort,” the Dean of Monies replied, “and it will be curtains for you,” or something along those lines.

Endless “clarification of thought” meetings took place among the Berkeley Catholic Workers. In the interim, we borrowed time by operating out of the basement of Mary Magdalene Church in North Berkeley, but it was too far from People’s Park where most of the homeless gathered. Finally, John Cooper and a small band of hard-core Berkeley Catholic Workers members—including my husband, Michael; my daughter, Jennifer; and me—agreed to take the more radical path.

Those who prayed—not John Cooper, who always insisted, “I’m not a Catholic; I don’t pray, and I don’t work”—went to Saint Joseph the Worker Church where Father Bill O’Donnell dedicated a monthly Mass to the Catholic Workers and advised us. We were a motley crew. John Cooper came to the Mass, but he sat grumpily on a folding chair at the back of the basement room where the Catholic Worker Mass was taking place, and he ducked out as soon as the “bloody kiss of peace” went round, and again when Holy Communion was distributed.

After one of those Masses, we decided that we would plant a People’s Café in People’s Park, occupying university-owned land. We purchased a beautiful (if such could be said) seventy-four-foot house trailer that we hauled from a construction site to the Berkeley Marina on the evening of 8 May 1989. A dozen of us spent the night at the marina in quiet contemplation. Father Bill came to give us a blessing. He reminded us that we would be breaking the law; we said we understood and would accept the consequences.

I annoyed the hell out of John Cooper every time I asked him during the cold night watch:

“John, what is the plan after we carry the trailer into People’s Park?”

“Dammit, Nancy, we’ll make a giant cauldron of oatmeal and one of grits, and we’ll start feeding people.”

“Yes, but what do we do when the police arrive?”

“Bag your negative energy. When the police come, we’ll know what to do.”


Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.

I shut up and put my head on my knees, wanting the morning light to appear. At 5:00 A.M. we got into our cars and accompanied The People’s Café as it was hauled by union-motorists down University Avenue. John, seated inside the cab of the truck, blasted a tape of the Hallelujah Chorus, as we held our breaths. Arriving at People’s Park, we took our assigned posts and set to work following a minute-by-minute schedule. Our carpenter-member sawed down some wooden posts that boarded the park, so the trailer café could be driven inside the park. We punctured the tires of the mobile café so that it would be a permanent fixture. We arranged picnic tables with tablecloths and lit up the gas stoves. By 7:00 A.M., when campus police arrived, we had already served more than 150 people a hot breakfast under the white flowing banner “The People’s Café.” The first cop said, “Holy shit!”

In the months that followed, The People’s Café provided more than good food. Guests were welcomed inside the café where card tables, dominos, chess, and checkers were set up. Free haircuts were given, and basins for “washing up” were provided, as were small lockers to store small, special possessions. Then mayor of Berkeley, Loni Hancock, praised The People’s Café, which she was cited in the Berkeley news as calling “a little piece of heaven dropped down on People’s Park.” During its tenure, there were no violent incidents at the park. When crises arose, they were dealt with on the spot. Weapons were sometimes confiscated, but we never had to call on or involve the police. The People’s Café was a weapon-free and police-free zone. We were respected—but, of course, the university wanted us out.

After several months of failed negotiations with UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Business and Administrative Services, the university filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court asking for a court order to forcibly remove The People’s Café. The judge rejected the case: “You want to remove the café; you can,” she said. “It is on state property. Don’t ask the county to be party to this.” The judge said that she was a great admirer of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. But ultimately after four wonderful years, the university police, armed and dangerous, entered the park and forcibly removed and eventually chopped up and destroyed The People’s Café. In its place, the university built volleyball courts for students.

Although he and a few companions reverted to bringing hot meals into park in the original green Catholic Worker pickup truck, John Cooper fell into a deep depression. It was never the same after that, and bad luck—bad ‘cess the Irish would say—followed. Gypsy, a much beloved street person, choked on a chicken bone while standing on his head in front of the Caffe Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue. Soon after, a nineteen-year-old runaway with a history of mental problems, known as Rosebud, who lived in The People’s Park, broke into University House, the campus home of the new and much loved Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien. Rosebud had a small machete. A security device alerted campus police, who arrived with a particular Berkeley police officer who had a history of violence and civil rights abuses. They found Rosebud cowering in the bathroom of the chancellor’s residence, and they shot her point-blank. Rosebud was a disturbed person, but John Cooper believed that her death could have been averted if The People’s Café and its staff of homeless veterans had been available to counsel her, just as we did many other disturbed people in People’s Park. Mad Lives Matter!

A few years later, John Cooper gave up and died of emphysema, neglect, and a broken heart. We grieved John’s death deeply, and I still miss him. John was a difficult man, a temperamental man, and at times a tempestuous man—but he was also a visionary. John confided that it all began in 1985 when, while driving his taxicab through the dismal backstreets of San Francisco, he experienced what he called gruffly, “an abrupt feeling that I should serve the poor.” John was also an educated man, and he left behind his bound Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. He had a problem with alcohol but never had a drink before 5:00 P.M. He was a “disciplined” alcoholic and the first to admit it. He wrote weekly reflections in our Berkeley Catholic Worker newspaper that captured the spirit and writings of the original Penny Catholic Worker socialist newspaper that I read as a child in New York City. Cooper was an itinerant and virtually homeless intellectual, similar in spirit to the French worker-priest Peter Maurin, who accompanied Dorothy Day and helped her to think. John had a single vision: to dwell physically, psychologically, and spiritually with the homeless. He never turned back.


Segment of “Berkeley: A People’s Bicentennial History of Telegraph Avenue” by Osha Neumann, O’Brien Thiele, Hannah Kransberg, and Daniel Galvez. Photograph by Wally Gobetz, via Flickr.

In my 1995 article, “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology,”I suggested ways of bringing together scholarship and moral and political commitment. In Death Without Weeping,I argued for an anthropologic-pe-no-chao, anthropology-with-one’s feet on the ground, a committed, grounded, “barefoot” anthropology. We can write books that go against the grain by avoiding impenetrable prose so as to be accessible to broader publics. We can make ourselves available to the poor, the displaced and disgraced, as companheiros and companheiras. We can exchange gifts based on our labors, use royalties or awards, to support radical actions. We can seek to avoid the death-dealing treadmill of academic/professional achievement. We can be scholars as well as upstarts. We can take advantage of the incredible freedom that the academy has given us and not squander it on useless or obscurantist arguments. “Theorists and Methodologists—Get to Work!” Finally, in “Three Propositions for a Critically Applied Anthropology,”I argued that there are times to “play the court jester, that sometimes mocking, sometimes ironic, but always mischievous, voice from the sidelines…to put on the white face of the harlequin…Don’t be seduced, be the seducer! Don’t be subverted, be the subverter! Laughter is the best medicine and the Rabelaisian love of the absurd, the grotesque, and for the tumbling of received wisdoms.”

There are times when civil disobedience is a just path toward human liberation. Today there is still hunger in the streets and newly exposed shocking hunger among our Berkeley student body—some of whom are so financially stressed by the rising cost of tuition, rent, and books that they limit themselves to one meal a day fortified by snacks of tortilla chips. I think of John Cooper as John the Good and wonder what he would say and write in his wise reflections in the Berkeley Catholic Worker newspaper, one cent per copy, just as Dorothy Day never changed the price. I think he’d say: Feed the hungry; visit the prisons; make friends with the drug dealers and the gangsters; open the doors of the university to the undocumented, to the former gang members, and let the homeless sit in on your classes. They all have a lot to teach us.


Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology,” Cultural Anthropology 36 (1995): 409–440.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “Three Propositions for a Critically Applied Medical Anthropology,” Social Science and Medicine (1991): 189–198.


Nancy Scheper-Hughes is the Chancellor’s Professor of Medical Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Her books, Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland and Death without Weeping: the Everyday Violence of Brazil (both by UC Press) have received multiple book awards including the Welcome Medal (Royal Anthropological Institute) for anthropology applied to medical problems and the J.I. Staley Prize for innovative work beyond traditional frontiers, adding new dimensions to our understanding of the human species.


A Boom Interview: Kevin Starr

Kevin Starr

Editor’s note: Narrator of the desires that gave California rise and the experiences of countless Californians, Kevin Starr has written the most comprehensive account of the place. A native son and fourth-generation San Franciscan, he chronicled the dream while living it. His California Dream series tells the story of the American state’s rapid, monstrous growth, along with its struggles, dips, and dodges from moments that could have snuffed out the dream and utterly snubbed the dreamers. Reckoned by some as tending more to tales of optimism and swashbuckling heroism amidst the troubles—in true glass-half-full California style—both Starr’s personal and literary approach to California are actually much more variegated and complex. Between writing the first and second volumes of a new series some call his magnum opus—the first volume titled Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America: The Colonial ExperienceBoom editor Jason Sexton recently managed to catch up with Starr. In this interview, we see the personal side of this historian—addressing religion, values, and matters of public concern—including his wide-reaching polymathic abilities that enable his unique kind of magisterial interpretation of the golden state. With ongoing reflections on the place—its past, present, and future—here we see Starr chronicling his own place in California’s ongoing saga, living even more meaningfully into the reality of the dream. This interview was conducted by Jason S. Sexton.

If you had to choose, what are three values that matter most to earlier shapers of California?

I frequently use the phrase “a better life for ordinary people.” That, I think, sums up the top three values motivating migration to California: life, the improvement of life, the ability of ordinary people to achieve such improvement for themselves. That is the theme of most of my volumes, or at the least, the background to those volumes, since I frequently concentrate on extraordinary people coming to California as well.

What do you think are the biggest threats to those values today?

The growing divide between the very wealthy and the very poor, as well as the waning of the middle class, as expressed geographically in California by the global wealth of the coast from San Diego County to Marin County and the rapid socioeconomic falloff evident in certain interior regions.


How have your views of California changed over the years?

As I grew older and a little wiser, I became more connected to what the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno describes as “the tragic sense of life.” My first volume is only tangentially connected to this tragic sense of life, while the volume dealing with recent California, Coast of Dreams, seems almost obsessed with it. That is because the present is exactly that: present to us in all of its complexity.

What is the main goal of the historian? And how do you see your work fitting together with the other guild of California historians?

It is the task of the narrative historian such as myself to assemble a narrative of what Ralph Waldo Emerson calls Representative Men and Women, and to place such figures in the context of their times, and thereby create a pointillist-realist probe into the past.

You never went through the tenure track route in academia, opting for an entirely different track altogether. Was this a good move? Do you have any regrets about it?

I am very proud of my diverse services as an Army officer, a senior tutor at Harvard, a librarian/civil servant, a newspaper columnist, a magazine contributor, a communications consultant, and the writer of a number of histories. As Paul Anka wrote for Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way,” thanks to the support of my wife Sheila and my commitment to the education of my children and grandchildren.

People have called you a booster and an optimist, classically juxtaposed to Mike Davis,but my first intro was reading how you accounted for my own story. So I checked for your handling of Tracy, I checked for the homeboys and the matter of mass incarceration—and you had it! And it was troubling. You told things as if you were there, but you managed to not completely fall into the noir California. You kept things sunny. What would really make you despair for California?

As far as I’m concerned, despair is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Given the ordeal of the world in general, Californians would be grossly self-indulgent to afford themselves the dubious pleasures of noir instead of committing themselves to what Josiah Royce and Carey McWilliams describe as the struggle for corrective action.

Californians have serious amnesia. What do you hope to accomplish with drawing from the deepest visions of this place, even back to the conquest?

As a graduate student at Harvard supported by a Danforth Fellowship, I had the opportunity to read somewhat extensively in the history and literature of the United States and, thereby, to come to the conclusion that a fusion of forgetting and remembering, amnesia and obsession with the past, is characteristic of our entire American civilization and not just California.

On the Boom board, we have a number of figures committed to efforts to revive nativism, what about the Native Indians here is critical to sketching California’s future?

One of the pleasures of my decade of service as State Librarian for California was the opportunity to get to know the various components of Native American California and to respect the complex cultural consciousness of these First Californians, from whom we continue to learn to this day. If you want to find an example of Unamuno’s tragic sense of life, just look at the way we treated those Native Americans in the nineteenth century: which is the theme of Helen Hunt Jackson’s great book, Century of Dishonor.

What is a Californian, and can you describe the character traits of a good Californian?

I have always approached the history of California as part of the history of these United States. I, therefore, resonate with the remark of my friend the late Wallace Stegner that California is like the rest of America, only more so. I grew up in California, a fourth-generation Californian; but I discovered California as the theme for history as a graduate student at Harvard, which meant that I perceived this history from a national and comparative perspective. Lately, my thinking has taken a comparable Asia/Pacific and Latin American direction.

You used to sign your books saying that the best Californians are those who choose to come here. Is this still true?

I still adhere to that belief. After all, I was born in 1940, when California had slightly less than seven million people. Today, that figure has become something like forty million and counting. I was born into one of the states of the American Union. By the time I was in my sixties, I was living in a nation-state of global significance. Today we are all living in a nation-state that is the sixth largest economy on the planet. Talented and hard-working people from around the globe have come to California to make this happen.

I recall asking you in 2013 why you didn’t write historical theology. This book—Continental Ambitions—where did it come from?

In Continental Ambitions: Roman Catholics in North America, the Colonial Experience, I employ the same narrative technique that I use in my Americans and the California Dream series: a blend, that is, of the nineteenth-century American historians, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks, Perry Miller, and Alan Heimert, under whom I did my doctorate at Harvard. I would describe this technique as pointillist-realist narrative, animated by an underlying and continuing dialectic that only rarely surfaces in an explicit manner.

Does the conquest sweep in the same way that California’s modern history does? Has California been a microcosm of the US even in the earliest images?


The long history of California—Native American, Hispanic, American, global—simultaneously shows discontinuities of growth and development and continuities of continuing aspiration. Certain basic paradigms continue: land and water, for example, continuing through the mining era, the agricultural era, the era of urbanization through dams, aqueducts and reservoirs; or the interaction of nature and technology; or a pursuit of pure science anchored in nineteenth-century astronomy. I am not suggesting cause and effect here but, rather, paradigms that repeat themselves.

What role do churches play in the California drama, in the past and today?

As is the case with the rest of America, religion—as a matter of imaginative and moral formation, language and metaphor, and guide to the good life—has played a most important part in the development of American California. Until very recently, we must remember, Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King and Catholic Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra represented California in the National Statuary Hall in our nation’s capital.

And how did the reformation, coming on its five-hundredth anniversary, help shape any of this vision?

Protestantism dominated the colonial era, the early republic, the nineteenth century, and the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. Whatever one’s religious traditions may or may not be, this Protestant matrix goes a long way in helping us to understand our national culture—hence, the importance of the Reformation and Protestantism in the formation and emergence of our national character.

You’ve written that California grew up innovatively as both a religious and secular state, which my students are always surprised to hear. And your work famously revised Hubert Howe Bancroft. But do you think the religious and secular can continue to work together? Or does the runaway tendency of secularism prove nonconducive for the flourishing of all groups here?

I do not accept this disjunction between religion and the world, or the world and religion, in the American experience. The first 150 years of American California showed a strong presence of organized religion as a social and cultural catalyst. Thanks to our separation of church and state, we Americans remain capable of rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. These days, the great religions of the world have brought to America and to California their transformative insights. As a force, religion remains in the private sector, but as Mark Twain said of the mistaken newspaper reference to his passing, the reports of the demise of religion as a force in American life have been highly exaggerated.

What role does faith play in your work and writing, both earlier and now? And how would you describe your relationship to the Church?

As far as my relationship to the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, I am proud to be a member in reasonably good standing of this 2,000-year-old faith community. I share this distinction with 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. As James Joyce said of the Catholic Church: here comes everybody!

Will you ever write your own memoir? Especially your own “becoming Kevin Starr” years from your early professional life, along with the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s? Some have identified the novel Land’s End as filling this role. Is this true?

I don’t think I would ever write a memoir. In a very real way, my books constitute a kind of memoir or at the least some form of documentation of my inner landscape. I’m not one for much introspection. I prefer to define myself through family, friends, community, and the act of writing. I do, however, plan to augment Land’s End, expanding it to a full narrative of the life and death of Sebastian Collins, who constitutes the closest I’ve ever come to an alter ego.

Catholic social teaching informs a lot of Jerry Brown’s rationale for big decisions he’s making in Sacramento; how does it inform your own work?

As you suggest, Governor Brown has successfully internalized Catholic social thinking. Like Governor Brown and thousands of others coming of age in Catholic San Francisco, I absorbed this tradition as well. In later life, I had the pleasure of discovering Monsignor John Ryan’s classic The Living Wage, which further solidified my thinking in this area. I have also been influenced by John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, emphasizing fairness. As a graduate student, I had the honor of being a member of the Leverett House Senior Common Room at Harvard when Professor Rawls was writing this magisterial book. Other influences on my social thinking—especially relevant to public service—have been the Analects of Confucius, Cicero’s De Officiis, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Lord Peter Hennessy’s recent Whitehall.

What do you make of Pope Francis?

During my lifetime, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have served as popes. Each of these men was remarkable in differing and shared ways. Two of these popes—John XXIII and John Paul II—have been raised to the altar as saints. John Paul II was an eminent philosopher, with an ability to project himself as an ecclesiastical rock star. Pope Benedict XVI continues his work as one of the leading Catholic theologians of our recent era. Pope Francis shares many traits with his predecessors, to include a capacity for off-the-cuff commentary in common with John Paul I. Like John XXIII, Francis projects warmth, accessibility, love and friendship. Like John Paul II, he is a tireless traveler. The images that come to mind when I think of Pope Francis are the photographs of him embracing the truly afflicted. As pope, Francis has de-imperialized the papacy.

What are the movements in California that you find most hopeful, either for the future of California or else for the future of the US and the world?

I ride DASH to the USC campus on the days I teach. The movement I love the most is the movement of the DASH bus filled with human beings of every age and occupation from every corner of the earth riding to their day’s work.


Susan Moffat, “Dueling Prophets of Next LA: Mike Davis Sees Murky Decay, While Kevin Starr Embraces Shiny Optimism,” Los Angeles Times, 19 November 1994, http://articles.latimes.com/1994-11-19/news/mn-64521_1_mike-davis.


Kevin Starr (1940-2017) was for many years a California historian and a professor at the University of Southern California. He received a Ph.D. in English and American literature at Harvard University and published such works as the multivolume series Americans and the California Dream.


Monumental Hydraulics: Diego Rivera’s Lerma Waterworks and the Water Temples of San Francisco

Rafael Tiffany
Susan Moffat


Front of temple looking at one of the faces of Tlaloc, Mexican god of rain and harvest.

The water pouring readily out of our private faucets is a modern production that belies the enormous scale of public infrastructure needed to sustain it. Aqueducts, reservoirs, and pumps have been central to the narrative of modern California as a hydraulic civilization: a society driven by the determination to do whatever it takes to maintain, defend, and expand access to water. Americans built soaring artistic monuments to hydraulic control in the West, creating three-dimensional representations of this will to power that bundle together ancient and modern myth, art, and engineering.


Second face of Tlaloc, Mexican god of rain and harvest.

In California, these shrines to infrastructure closely follow precedents from western antiquity. In the southeast San Francisco Bay Area, for example, upstream along Alameda Creek from the city of Fremont sits the water temple at Sunol, dedicated in 1910 by William Bourne and other members of the San Francisco elite associated with the private Spring Valley Water Company. The temple sits at the convergence of multiple water sources in the Alameda Creek watershed, where the streams were once blended and pumped forty miles across the Bay to San Francisco. Architect Willis Polk modeled the temple after the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, outside Rome, another monument to a vital aqueduct irrigating an imperial city. The sixty-foot-high Sunol temple has a circular footprint, cast-concrete Corinthian columns, and frolicking sea creatures, and it replaced a wooden shed that was deemed insufficient recognition for what the Spring Valley Water Company quarterly San Francisco Water at the time called “the dignity of water.”Under the terra cotta roof, visitors could look down to the vault through which waters roared into a subterranean pipeline.

Later, when San Francisco needed yet more water to turn its windswept dunes into parks and urban neighborhoods, it dammed the Tuolumne River in the Sierra Nevada’s Hetch Hetchy Valley, drowning a valley as spectacular as Yosemite’s. Starting in 1934, it brought the Sierra snowmelt through 160 miles of aqueducts to a reservoir south of the city and celebrated this marvel of engineering—publicly owned, this time—with the construction of a monument that took its inspiration from the one at Sunol, as well as more ancient antecedents. About two billion gallons of water a year rushed through the Beaux Arts Pulgas Water Temple, where visitors could view the flow from a platform inside the colonnade.

As in California, in Mexico governments commissioned structures to celebrate human hydraulic achievements. But while American engineers and artists looked to Rome for inspiration, Mexican artists turned to indigenous sources to celebrate their own infrastructural triumphs over water scarcity. In Mexico City, the Lerma Waterworks, also known as the Cárcamo de Dolores, commemorates a major aqueduct that feeds the modern city. In the Valley of Mexico, as in the western United States, European settlers forced their water management regimes into local landscapes, feeling thwarted by what they perceived as inhospitable environments. Both San Francisco Bay and the Valley of Mexico were rich in wetlands but their intermittent rainfall patterns frustrated foreign settlers. San Francisco occupied a foggy location on the tip of a seasonally arid Pacific coastal peninsula lacking a major river, while Mexico City was built on islands in the middle of a high-altitude lake with no outlet, with only a short wet season in summer. These conditions compelled European settlers to largely ignore indigenous water management traditions in favor of feats of the latest engineering.


Mural of a man immersed in water among sea creatures.

Since European settlement, water provision throughout Mexico City has been uneven and unreliable, in spite of the city’s lacustrine hydrological identity and regular floods. Having suppressed the traditional water management practices of the valley’s inhabitants, the Spanish substituted them with an approach intent on expelling water from the bottom of the basin that they decided to settle. The lake was gradually drained following major efforts beginning in the seventeenth century, and the Aztecs’ network of waterways evaporated. In both Mexico and California, as in ancient Rome, local resources were considered insufficient to develop cities; water would be acquired externally, stored, distributed, and then flushed away.

Mexico’s largest water infrastructure project of the twentieth century sought to modernize its capital city in this way, focusing on the goal of increasing the drinking water supply for its residents. The urban population explosion throughout the 1930s alarmed city planners, who decided that wells alone would be insufficient to meet growing demand. The decision to tap into external watersheds was also driven by the aim of reducing the sinking of the city caused by the extraction of groundwater. The Lerma System, constructed between 1942 and 1951, conveyed water from sixty kilometers west. The water spends almost a third of the trip underground, gurgling through a tunnel bored through the Sierra de las Cruces mountains, before spilling into the city in the great Chapultepec Park. The Lerma Waterworks is, therefore, a ceremonial entry point, a municipal mouth receiving distant water at a culturally vibrant location in the city.

In 1950, Diego Rivera, then nearing the end of his artistic career, accepted a state commission to design the site in collaboration with the architect Ricardo Rivas. Locating the site at the endpoint of the aqueduct system within the park was itself highly significant for its indigenous value and hydro-geographic role. The Chapultepec district played an important role in ancient Aztec (and pre-Aztec) beliefs and practices as the sacred altepetl, or water hill, its springs supplying the city of Tenochtitlan from an aqueduct running across the former Lake Texcoco. Taking inspiration from the site’s real and symbolic abundance of water, Rivera and Rivas’s intervention deploys a syncretic use of indigenous representation and craft for this modern infrastructure project.

To appreciate this, it’s best to view the monument from the elevated western approach, which follows the path of the subterranean water. A small stone temple faces the plaza, its ochre cantera stone forming a portico of eight columns and crowned by a shallow dome. The building fronts a trapezoidal reflecting pool, covered in mosaic and dominated by a 100-foot-wide sculpture rising from the water in bas relief, more legible by air than from the ground. This is Rivera’s rendition of Tlaloc, Mexica god of rain and harvest. The god is depicted in active stride, sowing corn kernels from one hand and wielding mature cobs in the other; Tlaloc is the medium of growth and life itself. He is two-faced, with one goggle-eyed, jaguar-toothed visage looking skyward, and the other face earthbound, its gaping tunnel mouth facing the temple. On the soles of Tlaloc’s sandals, a series of mosaics adapt Mexica iconography to depict the construction of the aqueduct through the mountains. The story is broadly conveyed and monumentalizes modern Mexico’s technological control over natural resources.


Mural of engineers and planners, and symbols for chemical processed for disinfection of water.

Inside the temple, Rivera covered the walls and floor of the subchamber with the mural Agua, Origen de la Vida en la Tierra. In it, ancient organisms drift through the primordial soup represented in the floor mural: protozoa, amoebae, and diatoms are succeeded by others in a crescendo of complexity that begin on the ground and flow up to the vertical plane of the walls, culminating in two human ur-forms, male and female, facing one another from across the chamber. The other two walls depict the entrance and egress of the water: the source on the west wall is represented by the disembodied hands of Tlaloc, above a tunnel that until recent years conveyed the water from the aqueduct, flanked by paintings of laborers. The east wall depicts the engineers and planners, and the symbols for the chemical processes required for disinfection hang over the gates that previously directed running water into nearby tanks and the purification infrastructure.

While the architecture of San Francisco’s water temples used classical iconography to celebrate both the commercial and aspirationally democratic context of its liquid resource, Rivera’s work in Chapultepec Park used locally rooted images to pronounce and mythologize the state’s manifest water destiny as it was centralized in Mexico City. Images of the indigenous past flow out of the water god’s outstretched hands into the modernity of the Mexican Miracle era of the 1960s, when the country invested heavily in its infrastructure. But the monument fell into disrepair in the last decades of the twentieth century, and its degradation mirrored that of the water infrastructure it memorialized. The flow has been rerouted beneath the site, invisible again, rather than running through it, because the water and the humid environment it created were damaging the murals.Beginning in the 1970s, the Lerma system was augmented by the Cutzamala system, a network that was extended repeatedly to meet growing demands. But the new distribution infrastructure was stretched thin and inadequately maintained, and runs dry before it reaches the poor urban periphery of sprawling Mexico City.


Mural of a woman immersed in water among sea creatures.


Tlaloc’s disembodied hands symbolizing the giving of water, and Tlaloc’s face outside.

While the visible portion of Rivera’s temple to the dream of a modern water system for the city has undergone renovation in recent years, the hidden aging pipes and earthquake-damaged conduits throughout the city leak an estimated 30 percent of their precious medium. Peripheral neighborhoods have intermittent water service, if it reaches them at all. Almost everyone in the city relies on bottled water. The Lerma Waterworks lays bare the contrast between the mid-century promise of comfortable, clean water infrastructure for all and the failing hydro-political systems of today. Its images of an evenly distributed modernity are newly potent, reaching out from a faded moment of the past to the contemporary city, where the government’s neglect of infrastructure hits everyone, but especially the poor.

In California, too, the water no longer flows through the Pulgas Water Temple. Function has trumped symbolism. Following a change in the water treatment system in the early 2000s, the water is purified at a treatment plant over at Sunol, near the water temple on the other side of the Bay. There, the Sierra water is treated with a chlorine-ammonia combination to kill off bacteria, and it is sterile water that flows across the Bay in a pipe to Pulgas. But the disinfectant chemical is deadly to fish and has to be removed before it goes into the Crystal Springs water reservoir.So while the water in Mexico City had to be removed from the temple because it was too erosive, in Northern California it had to be banished because it was too clean.

And while the people of Mexico City clamor to increase the supply of clean water to their metropolis, a citizens’ movement in San Francisco is agitating to redesign the flow of water from the Sierras to the city. These environmental advocates want to demolish the dam at Hetch Hetchy, saying the city shouldn’t be using a scenic wilderness as a storage tub for its drinking water. They see profligate urban water consumption as a shame, not a triumph, and celebrate the cathedral-like granite walls of the submerged valley rather than any human-made temple to engineering.

As the political debates rage on, the water temples of each city stand by, monuments to moments in history, reflecting a time when water infrastructure was seen worthy of artistic veneration, and when artists drew on the iconography of the past to argue that drawing water from the mountains to fuel a growing city was the prerequisite for civilization, not an act of plunder.


1 Rina Cathleen Faletti, “Undercurrents of Urban Modernism: Water, Architecture and Landscape in California and the American West,” dissertation presented to the University of Texas at Austin, 2015, p. 210. See also Gray Brechin, Imperial San Francisco, Chapter 2, “Water Mains and Bloodlines,” University of California Press, 1999.

2 Rivera painted the murals with a polystyrene compound meant to resist constant inundation, but erosion of the paint was visible within years of the monument’s completion. Experts at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes have since restored them.

3 When the water gets pumped out of the reservoir, it gets disinfected again before heading into homes. This elaborate system is needed because some of the water goes straight to taps while some gets stored in the reservoir first.


Rafael Tiffany is a master’s of landscape architecture candidate at University of California, Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. He has a background in art history and horticulture.

Susan Moffat is project director of the University of California, Berkeley, Global Urban Humanities Initiative. An urban planner and curator, she has worked in journalism, affordable housing, and environmental planning in the United States and Asia. She is currently organizing an arts festival at the Albany Bulb.



Greystone Chapel

Jason S. Sexton

Finding freedom inside Folsom Prison’s walls

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

Johnny Cash’s May 1968 album, At Folsom Prison, revitalized his career. Recorded live before two audiences of 1,000 inmates in a Folsom Prison dining hall on Saturday, 13 January 1968, the final song of both sets—and the eventual album—was “Greystone Chapel.” Cash had heard it for the first time just the day before his visit to Folsom. Floyd Gressett, a pastor from Ventura and a long-time minister to prisoners, had passed along a cassette to Cash ahead of the band’s Friday rehearsal. Gressett happened on the cassette tape from a Folsom prison worker earlier that day. The tape contained the track, written and sung by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, whose deep voice, like Cash’s own, boomed from the tape to introduce it: “All right, this is a take on Greystone Chapel.”1

Made famous through Cash’s romantic mythologizing,2 the chapel itself has an unusual place in the life and history of Folsom. Folsom Prison was founded in 1880 to ease overcrowding from San Quentin. As with San Quentin, Folsom’s original blueprints show no sign of a chapel. It wasn’t until a decade later that Chinese convicts began constructing Folsom’s chapel, each several-hundred-pound granite stone cut by hand. Both prisons were modeled on the Auburn system, which used labor and discipline to instill respect for work and for others. America’s earliest penitentiaries carefully designed meaningful space for religious worship. Yet despite California’s emergence as a simultaneously secular and religious modern utopia,3 a secular vision dominated the design of California’s first prisons. Professor of Law and Literature at Columbia University Robert Ferguson calls today’s American prison a “peculiar version of hell . . . that the American separation of church and state has imagined” for its inhabitants.4


Folsom Prison’s Greystone with main yard workout area in the foreground.

Set amid the wider prison buildings, designed in the Gothic style, Greystone Chapel was designed by Protestant prison officials as an austere space. When it was finally completed in 1903, it primarily served Catholics before taking on a life of its own. In 1909, along with religious chapel activities, it also functioned as a theater for the prison’s motion picture showings.5 It later became the site of a 12′ × 21′ replica mural of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, painted between 1938 and 1939 by Hollywood set designer Ralph Pecor, who served time at Folsom for manslaughter.

Today, the chapel is used by religious and nonreligious groups that each rearrange the space to suit their needs. Muslims cover Pecor’s painting when they gather, and Mormons use the smaller rooms in the back. Sometimes inmates wander in during one of the multiple Sunday services, not entirely sure what they will find, or what they are there for. The chapel’s worn-out piano got a free tuning courtesy of John Legend and his crew when the prison hosted him on 20 April 2015 as part of his #FREEAMERICA campaign.6

Due to security issues, events like this aren’t advertised; inmates were invited to the chapel for a special concert performance, and those who had not already entered were shut out once they realized what was happening and who was performing inside. Events like this in Greystone Chapel or in prison chapels up and down the state provide a space for transcendence within penitentiary walls. Whether that transcendence is of a spiritual or more prosaic nature depends on many factors at play within the prison walls.


The chapel was completed in 1903.

Religion has had a role in prisons for as long as they have existed in the modern sense. Even the word “penitentiary” has roots in the Christian concept of penance. Showing commitment to this idea, the British Parliament appointed and gave a salary to prison chaplains beginning in 1773—two years before even jailers received a salary. Today, Folsom prison employs chaplains from several different traditions: Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Native American. Only these chaplains get hired for full-time positions. No Buddhists, which is odd, this being California. No Hindu. No Sikh. No Eastern Orthodox, despite a rich California heritage of Greek, Armenian, and Russian immigrants. Even the best chaplains function largely as facilitators now, both for the informal activity among members of their own religious faith traditions and the mundane services they provide when chaplains for other faith traditions aren’t available to open chapel doors and provide resources essential for material worship. This is much different from earlier eras.

None of this is intended to suggest that Greystone Chapel has known only transcendence. The place has seen its share of vice and violence. Heroin has been shot up there, drugs and sex bought and sold, and murders committed. When the late Irish Catholic chaplain Father Denis Keaney, referred to by the inmates as the “Pope” of Folsom, saw Mexican Mafia member Mike Ison standing over an inmate he’d just stabbed in the Greystone Chapel, Keaney stated, “You’re in the House of the Lord!” To which, Ison replied, “The Lord won’t have to come far to get this one then.”7 Keaney was known not to take “any guff from anyone,” and once threatened to beat Charles Manson within an inch of his life.8

These sorts of things, however, are certainly exceptions in the life of California prison chapels, which are commonly understood to be “off limits” by inmates. By all accounts, the chapel is an altogether different space within the prison, set apart by a range of outside volunteer activity, and internally organized impulses of genuine reform, reorientation, and transformation focused on the moral and spiritual lives of inmates. It’s hallowed, treated as sacred space—a calm within the storm that exists nowhere else within the prison. This is not because the chapel is governed strongly by guards, chaplains, or even volunteers, although they are present. Instead, the space is regulated by the informal governance of “the brothers” (in male facilities)—those whose lives have begun a strange process of transformation, renewal, and redemption.

The space of the chapel, open to all inmates, is a great beacon of hope for everyone in a place that is, by all definitions, a massive failure of a social engineering experiment. Yet within the structures of the prison and deeply embedded into the life of the chapel are opportunities for renewal, and people who offer themselves and their lives in audacious ways—and at incredible risk—for the good of all. This is true when inmates break ranks from gang affiliations in pursuit of a lifestyle change, bonding together with members of other races from the newfound community, seeking a way out of the intense life on the yard, however deep they may be into the prison dynamics. In some cases, prisoners who have found a new life in the chapel, sometimes after significant personal debt from gambling or other activities, have found the incarcerated religious community willing to sacrifice and vouchsafe for the prisoner’s well-being and spiritual development, if indeed this pursuit is deemed genuine. Occasionally, when these individuals, sometimes major players in prison yard politics, make a genuine new commitment to chapel life, their former companions from the yard attend their rites of religious initiation (for example, baptism) or participate in other special religious services such as Ramadan, Hanukkah, or Easter.


Greystone Chapel Interior during Catholic Mass, with Ralph Pecor’s The Last Supper in the background.

The prison chapel is a place of redemption for so many and fills this position in ways that resist the repression that the mechanisms of power within the prison are intended to generate. Indeed, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, since adding “Rehabilitation” to its name in 2004, professes to believe in therapeutic restoration and reintegration. Most prisoners will get out one day and, hopefully, will be able to contribute meaningfully to society. At Folsom, Greystone Chapel is a place where music, art, leadership development, repentance, penance, hope, and transformation take place—instantiations of what Michel Foucault called a “local situation” counting as “the contradiction to the whole.”9 It is the place where the contradictions of the corrections plus rehabilitation model are transcended. It is the place for renewal and even a kind of re-creation with new possibilities that Hannah Arendt argues only come by forgiveness.

The political struggle to reform the prison today often yields the kind of gridlock that can be subverted only through practices that radically respond to a vision of freedom not extant in any of the formal structures built by the prison, including the chapel. This kind of transcendent resistance gives rise to extraordinary action deeply foreign to the carceral setting: joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. The theologically minded might call it the fruit of the Spirit, or the beginning of a truly transformative healing process. Often, it is the experience of this kind of renewal lived out in the chapel that becomes the basis for wider involvement in prison transformative life. Here is where love is, where the members of the prison community pray for those inside, those outside, and those inside headed outside—perhaps the most fearful scenario. But here is where love, forgiveness, imagination, pardon, and grace become the only thing that can see this through in California, which has had a far stronger penal outlook than most care to realize.

The vast majority of California’s prisoners will eventually gain their freedom from the prison’s walls. Many will face enormous hurdles, from a lack of family and connections on the outside to a lack of skills that would enable them to find jobs—even if they were first able to find employers willing to hire someone with a felony conviction. To varying degrees, these challenges can be mitigated by programs both inside and outside the prison. What these programs cannot provide, however, is a lesson in what it means to be free. The denial of freedom is, of course, one of the purposes of the prison. But knowing how to be free, how to find joy and peace and kindness, and understanding the responsibilities that come with them are vital for life outside—and staying outside—of prison. There must be a place to learn them. For many in Folsom, as at many other prisons across the state, that place is the chapel. It is where incarcerated folks can see and find hope, even as the prison’s formal and informal structures and the world outside of the prison struggle to deliver an imagined rehabilitative vision still purported as possible, although often remaining elusive.

The prison chapel is a place of redemption in ways that resist the repression that the mechanisms of power within the prison are intended to generate.

Johnny Cash made music in the den of darkness. Many others bring their own kind of inspiration into the den and with it hope for the freedom experienced within the Greystone Chapel, inside the walls of prison. If hope and freedom can grow there, they can grow anywhere.


Photo courtesy of Dan Poush, provided by Gene Beley with permission.



All photos courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation unless otherwise noted.

1. Eyewitness details of Cash’s visit are chronicled in Gene Beley, “Folsom Prison Blues,” Virginia Quarterly Review 81/1 (2005): 218–27.

2. There’s some question about whether Sherley actually wrote the song, which Cash began to doubt after advocating for his release from prison; Sherley later committed suicide, 11 May 1978. See Robert Hilburn, Johnny Cash: The Life (New York: Back Bay Books, 2013), 326–31, 438–40.

3. Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream: 1850–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 74.

4. Robert A. Ferguson, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 1.

5. April Moore, Folsom’s 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison’s Executed Men (Fresno: Craven Street Books, 2013), 37.


7. Jim Brown, Folsom Prison (San Francisco: Arcadia, 2008), 105.

8. Ibid., 104.

9. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977 (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 144.



Mapping the New Landscape of Religion

by Richard Flory, Nalika Gajaweera, Andrew Johnson, and Nick Street

Block-by-block in a changing Los Angeles neighborhood

This is an excerpt of an article from Boom Winter 2015, Vol 5, No 4. 

Click here for the interactive map.

Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church was in trouble. Its congregation had become too small to sustain the decaying Los Feliz building that had once been the spiritual home for a community of about 300 people. Its pastor had resigned in poor health.

So it fell to Jim Burklo, chair of the church’s building committee, to state the obvious to the remaining seventy-five or so members: “We got no pastor. We’ve got a building that’s a wreck. And there’s no money.”

Burklo said later of his fellow congregants: “These are all teachers and actors and musicians. You know, these people don’t have any money. There were maybe three people in the whole group who could cough up more than a standard pledge. So it’s like, forget it.”

So in 2011, the congregation decided to sell its building, a century-old outpost of a rapidly declining Protestant denomination, and rent space from a nearby Lutheran church that was also becoming a shadow of its former self. For some, a minority of members, Mt. Hollywood’s identity was inseparable from its historic home, and they chose to leave the fold rather than move into the Lutherans’ renovated Sunday School space.

Click here to explore the religious landscape of Los Feliz.

Click here to explore an interactive map of the religious landscape of Los Feliz.


Burklo cast Mt. Hollywood’s transition in a positive light. “Some of the people who quit were kind of very traditional,” he said. “I think the most important aspect of this transition has been that we did not wait until we completely evaporated before we decided to make the change.” The congregants who remained, he said, “were loose, free-spirited characters who were like, this is great. It was like a millstone dropped off the neck. Let’s focus on our community and not on the churchy stuff. The whole group just felt light.”

Mt. Hollywood’s willingness to divest itself of some of its institutional trappings—in addition to selling its physical plant, the church dropped many elements of its formal liturgy—was a prerequisite for Anne Cohen, who accepted a call as minister to Mt. Hollywood a few months after the congregation made its move.

“If they had not sold the building I would not have applied for the job,” Cohen said. “They had such an amazing reputation of being world-changers and community service people, and they couldn’t do it anymore, because that building was a mess and they didn’t have the money to fix it. I didn’t want to serve a church where maintenance was the main issue.”

At first glance, Mt. Hollywood’s story seems to affirm the broader narrative that dominates news about religious affiliation in the United States. We’re living in a time of great religious flux. Nearly a third of young adults in the United States have left organized religion altogether. Survey data from Pew and other national polling organizations show that mainline Protestants are losing the numbers game, and that most of those who are still drawn to established communities are far less attached to traditional institutions than were their parents and grandparents.1 Many traditional institutions—particularly mainline Protestant denominations like the Lutherans and Congregationalists—are edging toward extinction.

Still, the news of religion’s imminent demise is more than a little premature. Our research on religious innovation and change in Southern California suggests that understanding how Mt. Hollywood and other diverse congregations fit into the vibrant religious ecology of their neighborhoods yields a far more complex—and dynamic—picture of the potential future of American religion than those reports suggest.

“We were doing a food pantry with them every week here on this site,” said Reverend Dr. Neil Cazares-Thomas as he stood in the basement of the building that had formerly housed Mt. Hollywood Congregational Church. Over the buzz of saws and the thump of hammers, he said, “They contacted me just before Christmas and said look, you know, we’re in decline. We can’t afford the building. Would you be interested in buying it from us? And I thought for two seconds and said absolutely.”

Cazares-Thomas’s congregation, Founders Metropolitan Community Church, had outgrown its facility in West Hollywood and purchased a former Methodist church in Los Feliz in 2008. Five years later, Founders MCC—a “radically inclusive” Protestant denomination founded in the late 1960s by a gay, former Pentecostal pastor—was already bursting at the seams of its new home. Mt. Hollywood’s church, about a mile away, was just the right fit. “We’re now averaging about 300 folks over three services on a Sunday,” said Cazares-Thomas.

Founders MCC’s former home was in turn bought by the Kadampa Meditation Center-Hollywood in 2013. KMC-Hollywood, one of eight Kadampa centers in California, has become a sort of neighborhood Buddhist temple, typically attracting forty to fifty people to the classes and guided meditations they offer most days of the week, according to resident teacher Gen Kelsang Rigpa.

“It’s really local,” Rigpa said. “I would say literally 95 percent of the people that come here say the same thing: ‘I’ve been driving by this place for a year. I’ve seen it, I live around the corner, I just wanted to check it out.'”

In Los Feliz, in neighboring Silver Lake, and across the rest of Southern California, our research team—two sociologists, an anthropologist, and a journalist—found a dramatic proliferation in the number of choices available to those who are looking for both spiritual practice and community. To our surprise, we did not come across many religious mashups—few Muslafarians or Buddangelicals in the mix—though we have come across a few. But if you want a self-help take on Tibetan meditation, a godless recovery group, gay-friendly Catholic mass, hipster Bible study, socially conscious evangelicalism, or freeform mainline Protestantism, you are living in the right era. Far from being vitiated by the overall religious disaffiliation trend evident in the United States, religion in Southern California is being revitalized by it, as religious “nones” create new forms of purposeful community and spark innovation among groups that may have never before experimented with rituals, worship styles, or modes of organization.

Indeed, in our research, we are not finding a spiritual wasteland but, rather, a wild, wild West of religion.


Los Feliz is a small neighborhood—about two square miles, bounded by the Los Angeles River, Griffith Park, and Western Avenue to the east, north, and west. The neighborhood’s southern boundary is subject to some debate. Depending on whom you ask, Los Feliz is a rectangle completed by Sunset or Santa Monica Boulevard, or an inverted triangle with its bottom angle composed of the intersection of Heliotrope and Melrose (known to the local hipsters as “Hel-Mel”).

More than 40 percent of its roughly 40,000 residents are foreign born—an unusually high statistic, even by Los Angeles standards. Among the diverse array of immigrant groups, the most common countries of origin are Armenia (21 percent) and Mexico (10 percent). At $50,000 a year, the average household income in Los Feliz is in the middle of the bell curve for Los Angeles County, but that unremarkable number belies a very atypical range of incomes in such a small area. Tony hillside mansions between Los Feliz Boulevard and Griffith Park attract A-list actors, rock stars, and movie producers. Dense, pedestrian- and transit-friendly areas along Vermont and Hillhurst are popular with young creative types. The “flats” below Sunset are much poorer and denser than areas farther north.

This dramatically varied cultural and socioeconomic mix makes Los Feliz a microcosm of the diversity of Greater Los Angeles. Within the neighborhood’s two square miles, there are no fewer than fifty religious groups, including Catholics, Mormons, Pentecostals, Buddhists, Jews, Self-Realization Fellowship, the Church of Scientology, and Atheists United, which although it is irreligious, functions as a type of “church” of unbelief. Los Feliz’s eclecticism is also remarkably dynamic. Gentrification is rapidly reshaping its cultural landscape, along with its religious ecosystem.

Los Feliz and neighboring Silver Lake combine to form one of the “coolest” areas in Los Angeles, putting it in the running for one of the coolest places on Earth. How do you measure cool? In 2012, Forbes magazine analyzed neighborhood data such as walkability scores, the prevalence of coffee shops, the percentage of residents who work in artistic occupations, and access to food trucks. Once the numbers were crunched, they named Silver Lake as the “Best Hipster Neighborhood” in the United States. The writers at Forbes are not the only ones measuring cool. In late 2013, the Los Angeles County real estate website PropertyShark.com crowned Los Feliz as LA’s “Most Rapidly-Gentrifying Neighborhood.”

Whether it is called urban renewal or gentrification, the process is fairly straightforward. Artists, recent college grads, yuppies, and empty-nesters—largely but not exclusively white—move into strategically situated urban neighborhoods like Los Feliz. The new arrivals open coffee shops and restaurants, renovate their homes, and attract improved city services, all of which increase the demand for housing and cause home prices and rents to spike.

Although gentrification in and around Los Feliz has had a predictable impact on the cost of housing, the impact on religious congregations is not as clear. Some congregations have been immune to the demographic shifts. At first glance, Centro Cristiano Pentecostal seems vulnerable to the exodus of working-class Latino residents from the area. The Spanish-speaking Pentecostal church sits only a few blocks from vintage clothing stores and bars offering “hand-crafted” cocktails on Vermont Avenue, but it isn’t going anywhere. Its three weekend services followed by potluck meals served in the parking lot draw over 400 worshippers, and the building buzzes with activity nearly every day of the week.

The Centro Cristiano Pentecostal owns its building, so the congregation’s operating budget doesn’t need to rise to keep pace with climbing rental prices. As the surrounding neighborhood has changed, fewer members walk or take the bus to church than in the past, but the church offers a sense of belonging and a traditional Pentecostal worship service that is hard to duplicate. Membership has remained steady because congregants are willing to drive from all over the city for the vibrant and intense experience of its Pentecostal service.

Other congregations have recently opened in Los Feliz to cater to the spiritual needs of the creative class that has flocked to the area. Pastors Sam and Priya Theophylus emigrated from India as church planters and were drawn to the neighborhood because, as Pastor Sam says in a video posted on their church’s website, “Los Feliz is a neighborhood that creates. . . people are such seekers here.”2

Their church, the Beautiful Gate, occupies a rented space above a clothing boutique. Pastors Sam and Priya lead weekly services that they have specifically tailored to new and emerging sensibilities in this rapidly changing neighborhood.

Not all religious groups are equally equipped to weather the gentrification process. Pastor Ed Carey built his congregation, Hope International Bible Fellowship, by ministering to the down-and-out living on the area’s grittiest streets. Twice a day the fellowship serves hot meals to local homeless and working poor people, and the church has graduated hundreds of people from its residential, substance-abuse recovery program. The transformation of Los Feliz over the past decade or so has both dramatically decreased the number of local residents in need of a free meal, and increased the number of neighbor complaints about the small crowds that assemble outside the church during mealtimes. Passing by a new, stylish restaurant offering “organic, local, and small-farm produce” Carey recalled that, ten years ago, “People were scared to come here. Now on Sunday mornings they line up all the way down the block waiting in line for brunch.” There was no sarcasm or animosity in Carey’s voice, but, gazing philosophically at the sharply dressed lunch crowd, he asked, “I wonder if our congregation will gentrify, too?”

Founders Metropolitan Community Church is the flagship congregation of the Metropolitan Community Church movement, which was established in 1968 by Rev. Troy Perry. Historically, Founders MCC—and the MCC movement—has served the spiritual needs of the LGBT community, though more recently the church has been attracting straight members who are drawn to its nonjudgmental approach to religion. The church describes itself as “radically inclusive,” which most obviously relates to sexual identity (LGBT and straight), but also encompasses the wide range of spiritual needs and beliefs that people bring through the church door. In addition to telegraphing its openness to an unusually wide range of identities, the phrase “come as you are” at Founders MCC also means that worshipers are invited to shape their own beliefs about what or who God is, and about how “s/he” operates in the universe as well as in their individual lives.

Lisa Arnold, who has been attending Founders MCC for several years said, “I had heard about it and I knew it was a gay church. I didn’t know the history of it, about Reverend Troy. I’ve learned all of that since I’ve been here. But the one thing that I felt was love, acceptance, and worthiness. The fact that you can walk into a place that fully accepts you. . . really is just such a blessing.”

Most of Founders MCC’s members are middle-aged or older, although there are a handful of younger people in the congregation. Its cultural and ethnic mix is remarkably diverse for a Protestant congregation, and the crowds at Sunday services are about evenly divided between solo attendees and couples. Just like many predominantly straight churches, Founders MCC has a big focus on “family.” This emphasis is a part of a broader push to create a deeper sense of community for members, many of whom—both gay and straight—are parents of young children. PJ Escobar, who is originally from Texas and who spends almost all of his free time volunteering at the church, said that when he first came to the church, he realized he had found a home. “I knew that I finally belonged somewhere,” Escobar said. “These people here are my family.”

This keen focus on the cultivation of a sense of belonging points toward one of the most remarkable characteristics of Founders MCC, which is in some respects a “mini-megachurch.” Even though each of the three Sunday services draws no more than 100 people, the church operates as a community center of sorts for Los Feliz. Over the course of any given week, several different community organizations, spiritual and Bible study groups, twelve-step groups, and a pre-school use the church’s meeting spaces. Founders MCC has also nurtured relationships with other churches and organizations in the community, collaborating, for example, with Holy Spirit Silver Lake and a nearby Mormon church on different service-oriented projects. These different groups and activities mean that about a thousand people pass through Founders MCC during a typical week, giving the relatively modest church an outsize cultural footprint in the community.

The rest of this article, and the complete Boom archive, is available only to subscribers. Click here to learn more.



Photographs by Nick Street.

See, for example, the General Social Survey, conducted each year (with a few exceptions) since 1972. See also decennial Religious Congregations and Membership Study. Both the GSS and RCMS are available for analysis at thearda.com.