Tag: Social Justice

Articles

The Other Southland: Missions, Monuments, and Memory in Tovaangar

Catherine S. Ramírez

I come from the other Southland. Not the Southland of Lynyrd Skynyrd, plantations, Scarlett O’Hara, and monuments to Stonewall Jackson, but the Southland of The Beach Boys, missions, Ramona, and monuments to Junípero Serra. I’m from Southern California. Notwithstanding the historical, political, demographic, and cultural differences between the South and Greater Los Angeles, both are sites of struggle over how or whether to remember white supremacy and the peoples subjected to it. Both are also sites of settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession and survival.

Figure 1: Mission San Gabriel, San Gabriel, California. Photo by the author.

I also come from the other valley. Not The Valley of movie studios and Valley girls, but the San Gabriel Valley, a constellation of 47 cities and unincorporated areas that stretches some 200 miles from East LA in the west to the Pomona Valley in the east and from the San Gabriel Mountains in the north to Puente Hills in the south. Just as the San Fernando Valley takes its name from the mission that Spanish priests established there in 1797, my valley is home to Mission San Gabriel Arcángel (Figure 1). The fourth of California’s twenty-one missions, Mission San Gabriel was founded by Serra in 1771, ten years before the establishment of el Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de la Reina de los Ángeles. Also known as Tovaangar, the LA Basin, of which the San Gabriel Valley is part, is the ancestral and enduring home of the Tongva, the Native people the Spaniards called gabrieleños. In the twenty-first century, LA County has the largest indigenous population of any urban area in the US. While some of the peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains were named after white supremacists, the SGV, as the San Gabriel Valley is affectionately known, is now one of the least white places in the United States; the majority of its 1.4 million residents are Latinx and Asian. Masses at Mission San Gabriel are offered in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.[1]

As a child in the 1970s and early ‘80s, I attended masses in Spanish in honor of the Virgin Mary at Mission San Gabriel. My family called these masses ofrecering, a Spanglish word that we invented for offering. Unlike the masses we attended every Sunday at St. Thomas More, our parish church in nearby Alhambra, ofrecering was a special occasion. St. Thomas More was housed in a mundane glass and concrete block dating back to what was then the proximate 1960s. In contrast, Mission San Gabriel was a simultaneously rustic and resplendent two-hundred-year-old historical landmark made by Tongva laborers of brick, stone, and adobe. Like some of the other California missions, it boasts a campanario, a wall with openings for bells. San Gabriel’s holds six bells, the oldest of which dates back to 1795. Yet what makes the mission architecturally distinctive is its strong Moorish style, a testament, in all likelihood, to the Andalusian origin of its designer, Father Antonio Cruzado. Cruzado hailed from Córdoba and the ten capped buttresses along the mission’s imposing, thirty-foot-tall south wall resemble those atop Córdoba’s famous cathedral, a mosque until 1236.[2]

Figure 2: The author (first on left) and her sisters outside Mission San Gabriel, early 1970s. Original photo by the author’s father.

Ofrecering mandated special attire. Not even our Sunday best was good enough. Girls, including my sisters and I, wore white dresses and veils (Figure 2). If my outfit was especially on point, I rocked a pair of white patent leather shoes as well. Boys wore shirts, jackets, and ties. Dressed like miniature brides and grooms, we children paraded up the chapel’s center aisle bearing flowers for the Virgin Mary. Ofrecering was both solemn and sensory. I marched to the altar and left my flowers at the base of a porcelain statue of the Virgin as I watched the light of the candles flicker on the mission’s walls, listened to the choir sing, and took in the scent of incense and fresh-cut roses and calla lilies.

Figure 3: The author in her San Gabriel Mission High School uniform, September 1983. Original photo by the author’s father

In 1983, I returned to Mission San Gabriel for a more prosaic reason: high school. In addition to an elementary school, the mission houses a girls’ high school. Instead of dressing like a bride, I was required to wear black-and-white saddle shoes, a white oxford shirt, a green or navy vest or cardigan, and a green, blue, white, and yellow plaid skirt as a student at San Gabriel Mission High School (Figure 3). Even though there were few students of Scottish descent — the vast majority were Mexican American — our uniform looked a lot like the Gordon Dress tartan, as registered in the Scottish Register of Tartans. Since the school’s founding in 1949, its mascot has been the Pioneer (Figure 4). What this mascot looks like is anyone’s guess. According to the school’s 2019 Official Branding Document, “No images should be used with the name ‘Pioneer’ as there is no official image chosen by the school in its history.”  

Figure 4: San Gabriel Mission High School, San Gabriel, California, August 2020. Photo by the author

Growing up in California, I learned in school that there were three peoples who’d inhabited my state: the Indians, who, I was told, had vanished eons ago; the Spanish explorers, padres, and soldiers, who, I presumed, had also gone away; and the white (sometimes called Anglo) pioneers who’d stayed and given us the present we inhabited. It’s unclear if San Gabriel Mission High School’s Pioneer is Spanish or Anglo. Notwithstanding this ambiguity, the true founders of modern California, I was taught, were white, whether they were from Spain or Scotland. Where, if at all, people of Mexican origin fit into the master narrative of California history was unclear. Until I got to college, I learned nothing about California’s Mexican period (1821-1848). And while I didn’t encounter the word Tovaangar until I was well into my 40s, I learned where Mallorca, Serra’s birthplace, was when I was in the fourth grade.

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Figure 5: The author working on her model of Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo, 1979. Original photo by the author’s father

In California schools, state history is taught in the fourth grade. For generations, the mission project has been a hallmark of the fourth-grade curriculum.[3] Using two quart-size milk cartons for bell towers, homemade yogurt as plaster, and Fisher-Price Little People, my parents and I built a model of Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo (Figure 5). Like Mission San Gabriel, Mission Carmel was founded by Serra. Of the twenty-one missions, Carmel was reputed to be his “personal favorite.” With its tall, thick walls and high, narrow windows, Mission San Gabriel, the site of multiple uprisings by Native Americans, has the air of a fortress.[4] Carmel, in contrast, is the apotheosis of California’s Spanish fantasy. Its lush courtyard and blue tile fountain belie its role in the enslavement, starvation, torture, and decimation of the indigenous Ohlone and Esselen peoples.  

The Spanish fantasy, a conceit identified and named by journalist, author, and lawyer Carey McWilliams in 1946, is “a fictionalized past exploited by Los Angeles ‘Boosters’ bent on transforming the region into the cultural and economic capital of the West.”[5] In that fantasy, “the Indians were devoted to the Franciscans…their true friends,” while the lay colonizers, genteel dons and pretty señoritas, “lived out days of beautiful indolence.”[6] Poet Caroline Randall Williams reminds us that the South’s “prosperity and sense of romance and nostalgia were built upon the grievous exploitation of black life.” Likewise, the Spanish fantasy obscures and distorts the violence of indigenous and Mexican dispossession in California.

Figure 6: Gateway Plaza Monument, Alhambra, California, August 2020. Photo by the author.
Figure 7: Alhambra High School, Alhambra, California, August 2020. Photo by author.

While the missions have long been associated with the Spanish fantasy, they aren’t its only avatars. The Spanish fantasy permeates the very geography of the San Gabriel Valley. Alhambra, a municipality on the western edge of the SGV, offers a uniquely orientalist take on that fantasy. In 1874, Benjamin “Don Benito” Wilson, a white trapper and trader originally from Tennessee who’d married into a prominent Californio family, bought 275 acres of land about three miles southwest of Mission San Gabriel. He named his purchase Alhambra, after the storied Islamic fortress-palace in Granada, Spain. According to the city of Alhambra website, he chose this name not because of the nearby mission’s Moorish architecture, but simply because his daughter happened to be reading Washington Irving’s 1832 book Tales of the Alhambra. Today, the Gateway Plaza Monument (Figure 6), a replica of the eleventh-century Puerta de Elvira in Granada, sits near the corner of Fremont Avenue and Valley Boulevard.[7] The Gateway Plaza Monument also figures prominently in the Alhambra city logo. Alhambra High School’s mascot is the Moor (Figure 7). I learned to swim in the public pool at Granada Park and I attended quinceañeras, wedding receptions, memorial services and a concert by the ‘80s disco group Tapps at Almansor Court (Figure 8), a banquet hall in Almansor Park. (Almansor, a variation of Almanzor and al-Mansur, was the ruler of Islamic Iberia in the late tenth century.)   

Figure 8: Almansor Court, Alhambra, California, August 2020. Photo by the author.

In addition to erasing Native Californians, the Spanish fantasy erases Mexicans.[8] It replaces both groups with exotic and distant Moors or sanitized and proximate (vis-à-vis other Europeans) Spaniards. Thus, it should come as no surprise that some Mexican Americans have tried to insert Mexicans into the Spanish fantasy as a means of claiming a part of California’s past. Writing about conflicts in the 1960s and ‘70s over California’s fourth-grade mission curriculum, historian Zevi Gutfreund observes that accommodationist Mexican Americans “believed that teaching missions tied their heritage to state history in a powerful way….They believed that accepting the mission myth forged ties to white privilege.”[9] To further solidify the ties between eighteenth-century Spanish colonizers and twenty-first century Latinxs, Pope Francis declared Serra “special patron of the Hispanic people” when he canonized the Franciscan missionary in 2015. What’s more, the pope upheld Serra as “one of the founding fathers of the United States,” thereby rendering Mexicans and other Latinxs “worthy of inclusion as true Americans.”[10] Once again, the pioneer — a settler colonial, in other words — is cast as the true American. When displaced by the white pioneer, Mexicans are victims of settler colonialism. When we become the pioneer, we are agents of it.

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Serra’s canonization and the reckoning over monuments that the Black Lives Matter movement has compelled have brought renewed scrutiny to the missionary and his likeness. On September 27, 2015, four days after his canonization, a person or group of people broke into Mission Carmel, where Serra died and is buried. The bronze statue of Serra in the courtyard was toppled and “Saint of Genocide” was scrawled across a stone. Statues of Serra have also been defaced or torn down at the missions in San Fernando, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Rafael, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in Capitol Park in Sacramento, and in Father Serra Park in downtown LA.[11]

Figure 9: The author’s parents and children at Mission San Gabriel, June 2020. Photo by the author.

On June 20, 2020, the day that indigenous activists felled the statue in Father Serra Park, I happened to take my elderly parents and teenage children to Mission San Gabriel. I’m not religious, but I have fond memories of the mission. Moreover, after three months cooped up at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, we were simply desperate to go somewhere. Unaware of what was happening at Father Serra Park, I wagered that driving past the mission was a relatively low-risk activity. The mission was closed, but I was able to take a photo of my family with the Serra statue near the chapel’s main entrance (Figure 9). Although my parents and kids are wearing masks, it’s evident that no one is smiling. Shortly after I snapped that photo, mission authorities moved the statue to an interior garden, away from public view. Then, in the pre-dawn hours of July 11, 2020, a day after $200,000 in renovations had been completed, a fire erupted at Mission San Gabriel. The fire damaged much of the chapel’s interior and destroyed its roof. After a nine-month investigation, the LA County District Attorney charged a man with arson and other counts. No motive for the fire was given.

When I first heard about the fire, I thought I felt ambivalent about it. I shared the outrage and triumph of the protestors in Bristol, England, who, in June of 2020, tore down and pounced on that city’s late-nineteenth-century bronze statue of the seventeenth-century slaver Edward Colston before hurling said statue into Bristol Harbor. Similarly, when I saw over the summer of 2020 how protestors in Richmond, Virginia, had transformed the late-nineteenth-century bronze Robert E. Lee Monument by covering it with images and “names of victims of police violence, protest chants, calls for compassion, revolutionary symbols and anti-police slogans in dozens of colors,” I felt a wrong had been righted, even if only for a moment. Then I admitted to myself that, irrespective of the cause of the fire at the mission, I felt more sadness and loss than ambivalence about it. Undeniably, Mission San Gabriel testifies to the violent past and present of settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession and displacement. So, too, do the White House, the Statue of Liberty, Alhambra’s Gateway Plaza Monument, and the post-World War II tract home in which I grew up. At the same time, Mission San Gabriel, not unlike these aforementioned sites, holds memories and meaning for many.

Above all, Tongva labor, artistry, and survival are manifest at Mission San Gabriel. As art historian Yve Chavez has pointed out,

My Tongva ancestors lived and died at Mission San Gabriel….A visitor unfamiliar with the true history of the missions…may not recognize the Native labor that made this church and other mission buildings….These structures are not just about Spanish colonization…they also reflect the accommodations that Native peoples made under very difficult circumstances: they learned new skills to construct buildings that were not adapted to California’s earthquake-prone environment; they attended mass in the churches either against their will or maybe reluctantly; and they also made these spaces their own. 

Chavez has identified mission museums in particular as troves of “archival materials….made by our ancestors” and has called for increased access to those collections for Native scholars. In September 2020, she noted that “only one of the twenty-one missions has a Native curator.” “The recent fire at Mission San Gabriel,” she stressed, “…is a reminder of the fragility of the historic churches and other buildings that remain at these sites….The missions need Native scholars.” The fire at Mission San Gabriel wrecked not only a living place of worship — of baptisms, quinceañeras, weddings, funerals, and ofrecering — but an irreplaceable primary source and a living connection to the past.

If, as the folks at Monument Lab remind us, a monument is a statement of power and presence in public, then the missions were and are monuments. The Spaniards forced Native Californians to build them, accommodationist Mexican Americans have embraced them, and protestors target them precisely because these structures were and remain statements of power and presence in public. Yet Chavez’s call to “indigenize mission narratives” underscores the need to rethink our, including and especially Chicanxs’, relationship to monuments.

Like lots of people of Mexican origin, I’m of indigenous North American and Iberian descent. While I’m a beneficiary of settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession — I write these words in my house in Santa Cruz, unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe — I reject monuments of Serra and other colonizers, such as Juan de Oñate and Christopher Columbus. These men, problematic in their own time and today, aren’t my heroes. Inviting or compelling me, other Latinxs, and immigrants to identify with and to celebrate them lays bare the violence of assimilation and settler colonial erasure. Rather than reproduce that violence, I seek new ways of remembering and new relationships among past, present, and future.   

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Figure 10: Rendering of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial’s Meditative Sitting areas. Illustration used with the permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.

With the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial, artists Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo offer a new vision of the matrix of history, society, and environment. They also offer a new way to link past, present, and future. At the time of this writing (July 2021), funding for the construction of the memorial hasn’t yet been secured, so it’s unclear if it will ever be built. Still, the time is nigh for a new kind of monument in the United States. Because we are, as journalist Mychal Denzel Smith reminds us, Americans “through force, choice, or happenstance,” we need monuments that confront the complex and contradictory roles we play as displacers and displaced.[12] We need monuments that grapple with what critical Latinx indigeneities scholar Maylei Blackwell calls “layers of coloniality,” such as Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. colonialities.[13] We need monuments that rethink power and presence, including indigenous presence. And we need monuments that allow us to heal without forgetting.

The Sleepy Lagoon incident took place in the early morning hours of August 2, 1942, about eight miles southeast of downtown LA, near the intersection of what are now South Atlantic and Bandini Boulevards. The incident involved a couple of fights between groups of Mexicans and Mexican Americans: the first at Sleepy Lagoon, a quarry pit that doubled as a swimming hole, and the second at a party at nearby Williams Ranch. José Díaz, a twenty-two-year-old Mexican immigrant, attended that party. After his bloody and battered body was found outside the hosts’ house, police rounded up hundreds of Mexican American youths as suspects in his murder. Twenty-two young men from the nearby 38th Street neighborhood, all but one of whom were of Mexican descent, were tried and convicted of conspiracy to murder. Ten girls and young women ranging in age from thirteen to twenty-one were held as witnesses in what came to be known as the Sleepy Lagoon case. At least five of those girls and young women were incarcerated at the Ventura School for Girls, while their male counterparts entered the California prison system. Teachers, cops, academics, social workers, the mainstream Angeleno press, and the judge and district attorney in the Sleepy Lagoon case branded Mexican American youths gang members. The zoot look, a style of dress popular among not only some of the participants in the Sleepy Lagoon incident, but among young, working-class Americans in general, was declared the uniform of the Mexican American delinquent.[14]

The Sleepy Lagoon incident catapulted the figure of the Mexican American gangster into the American imaginary. It also foreshadowed the Zoot Suit Riots, clashes in LA between white servicemen and people of color over the first two weeks of June 1943. During the so-called riots, white servicemen attacked Mexican American zooters and people of color in general. The police did nothing or they arrested the servicemen’s victims.  

The Sleepy Lagoon incident and its aftermath exemplify state-sanctioned violence against people of color. In these events, we see elements of the carceral state, such as racial profiling, stop and frisk, and the gang injunction. We see heightened xenophobia and jingoism, the destructive power of yellow journalism, and bitter contests over public space in a city rapidly morphing into an industrial, highly segregated metropolis. And in the zoot suit, we see a syncretic, interracial, urban youth culture with roots in African American jazz. The Sleepy Lagoon incident, Zoot Suit Riots, and World War II-era zoot subculture loom large in Chicanx cultural production. They’re also a part of many family histories, including my own. My uncles and aunts, for example, wore variations of the zoot look, such as baggy trousers and high bouffants, and my father remembers the Sleepy Lagoon case and the Zoot Suit Riots. However, there are no markers in LA (or anywhere else) commemorating Sleepy Lagoon, the Zoot Suit Riots, or the zoot subculture. As Los Angeles Times reporter Carolina A. Miranda has observed, these “oversights…speak volumes about the histories our city considers worth honoring and those it has chosen to overlook.”

The Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would help remedy these oversights. However, as de la Loza informed me, it wouldn’t “exalt” a particular individual or “a singular event.”[15] Instead, it rethinks the very idea of the monument. Spanning approximately 150 yards in Riverfront Park in the city of Maywood, the memorial would consist of multiple parts, including a path; a swale containing native plants, such as California Sagebrush, milkweed, and prickly pear cactus; works of art, such as concrete sculptures and designs on the ground; and seated elements, such as a bench and sculptures in the form of tree stumps (Figure 10). In homage to the Tongva and “current indigenous diasporic communities in Bell, Maywood and surrounding communities,” the tree stump seats would be modeled after trees “native to one of the many cultures that have inhabited Southeast Los Angeles, past and present.” For example, some would be modeled after the California Oak and the Ceiba of Mexico and Central America. Similarly, signage would be in English, Spanish, Tongva, Nahuatl, and Mayan.[16]

To design the memorial, de la Loza and Romo consulted archives, community members, plant experts, historians, and Tongva cultural leaders. They also collaborated with DakeLuna, a landscape architecture firm focusing on “local and regional conservation and watershed issues,” and East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, an organization that works toward “a safe and healthy environment for communities that are disproportionately suffering the negative impacts of industrial pollution” in East LA, Southeast LA, and Long Beach.[17] The city of Bell and the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, a branch of the California Resources Agency, underwrote the cost of the design.[18] 

Riverfront Park is located on the western edge of the Los Angeles River, about two miles southwest from where Sleepy Lagoon and Williams Ranch used to be. The 7.3-acre park opened in 2008 as part of the LA River Master Plan, a vision of “shared public open space and parks, stewardship of precious water resources, improved ecosystem function, and continued flood management” along the river from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach. Riverfront Park was selected as the site for the memorial because, as Romo explained, “People wanted a monument that they could visit in a place that was accessible already.”[19] Warehouses, parking lots, and the 710 freeway occupy what used to be Sleepy Lagoon and Williams Ranch. Not unlike Dodger Stadium, former site of the vibrant Mexican American neighborhood of Chavez Ravine, these structures concretize historical erasure.  

In addition to undoing that erasure, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would offer “ecological remediation.”[20] The area where Sleepy Lagoon and Williams Ranch used to be was once somewhat rural. Today, it’s one of the most densely populated and polluted corners of LA County. Riverfront Park is roughly three miles from Exide Technologies, the source of one of the worst environmental and public health disasters in California and a textbook example of environmental racism. From 1922 until its closure in 2014, the smelter and battery recycling plant at Exide spewed lead, arsenic, and other toxins known to cause cancer, respiratory problems, and learning disabilities into the communities of Bell, Boyle Heights, Commerce, East LA, Huntington Park, Maywood, and Vernon. These communities are predominantly Latinx and about one-third of their residents live in poverty.[21] In October 2020, a federal judge approved Exide’s bankruptcy plan, effectively punting the cost of cleaning up its former facility and its environs to taxpayers.   

Figure 11: Rendering of the mural on the back of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial’s Whispering Wall and Bench. Illustration used with permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.

Intertwining past, present, and future and the social and ecological, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial reckons with the violence committed against the peoples, plants, and animals in and around what used to be Sleepy Lagoon. The memorial also celebrates the persistence and resilience of human and non-human life. Parts of the memorial resemble what de la Loza described as “more formal” monuments.[22] For example, the bas-relief mural on the back of the Whispering Wall and Bench (Figure 11) features images of pachucas and pachucos. Meanwhile, the swale that the bench overlooks evokes Sleepy Lagoon, the “gravel pit” that Mexican American youths transformed into a swimming hole because they were often denied access to segregated public pools.[23] The native plants filling the swale were selected not only in honor of “the ecologies that have been displaced through development,” but also because they help with stormwater filtration and soil remediation.[24]

Like the missions and statues of Serra, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would be a statement of power and presence in public. Yet rather than projecting white supremacy and inspiring terror, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial sets out to heal historical, social, and physical wounds. It remedies the omission of Latinxs from dominant narratives of Angeleno history while acknowledging LA’s past and present indigenous peoples. It reminds us of the ongoing need to address profound social problems, such as police violence against communities of color and struggles over space, especially between poor, racialized communities and more powerful forces. And it beckons all of us to pay attention to the health of our planet, beginning with a corner of a park in a brown and working-class neighborhood.    

About a year after I photographed my family in front of a shuttered Mission San Gabriel, my parents and I visited Riverfront Park. The scene couldn’t have been more different from the stillness, solitude, and severity of the previous year. People were enjoying the Saturday-afternoon sun and one another’s company. Children scampered in the playground and on the basketball court, men hurled balls against the walls of the handball courts with the intensity of Olympians, and friends and families picnicked under the pavilions and on the grass. Some picnickers napped in hammocks they’d hung beneath the pavilions and between trees. A paletero competed with an ice cream truck playing “Turkey in the Straw” over and over and an occasional light breeze carried the scent of weed. As we strolled along the park’s path, my father told me about living in Maywood as a small boy in the 1920s. He and his family moved there from Arizona because his father got a job with Standard Oil. My father wasn’t sure what his dad did for Standard Oil. However, in all likelihood, my grandfather, a hardscrabble Mexican immigrant, found work after the Huntington Beach Oil Field, a string of oil pools stretching from Orange County to Santa Barbara, was tapped in 1920. Although I grew up in the SGV, I learned during our visit to Riverfront Park that I, too, am connected to Southeast LA’s braided histories of displacement, extractivisim, migration, exploitation, survival, and resilience.  


Figure 12: Rendering of the path and bridge in the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial. Illustration used with the permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.
Figure 13: Rendering of the front of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial’s Whispering Wall and Bench, with a tree stump seat in the foreground. Illustration used with the permission of Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo.

Traditional monuments, like those of Serra, Oñate, Columbus, Colston, and Lee, are objects. In contrast, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial would be an ecosystem, a system in which all parts are connected. Above all, it would be an alternative ecosystem to those of el Camino Real, the Spanish fantasy, and toxic capitalism. With its path and scattered seated elements, the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial brings together motion and stillness. The path (Figure 12) is an invitation to enter and to move through the memorial. Indeed, the life-size foot patterns on the bridge crossing the swale – a reference to jazz and the zoot-suiter’s dancing feet — instruct us to “move there” (“MUEVELE ALLI”). Meanwhile, the memorial’s seated elements are an invitation to stay. That the Whispering Wall, the memorial’s most monument-ish component, doubles as a bench is significant (Figure 13). A bench is a resting place. It gives us the opportunity to be still. In addition to transferring “the cultural and environmental knowledge and history of the area,” the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial seeks “to provide space for reflection and regeneration for present and future generations.”[25] Put another way, this expansive, dynamic, and living memorial invites us to stroll, to shake a leg, and then to sit down, to learn about what went down in and near where we’re seated, and to marvel at the living beings that have made and continue to make Tovaangar their home.

Acknowledgements
I thank Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo for sharing information and materials about the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial with me; my colleagues, Chris Benner, George Bunch, Ernesto Chavez, Yve Chavez, Sylvanna Falcón, Dana Frank, Dan Guevara, Rebecca Hernandez, Kate Jones, and Veronica Terriquez, for our conversations about missions, monuments, and the SGV; and Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzmán for their keen editorial skills. All errors and oversights in this essay are my own. 


Notes

[1] Wendy Cheng, The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, ed. Romeo Guzmán, Caribbean Fragoza, Alex Sayf Cummings, and Ryan Reft (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2020).

[2] Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume XIX: History of California, Vol. II, 1801-1824 (San Francisco: The History Company, 1886), 113.

[3] Zevi Gutfreund, “Standing Up to Sugar Cubes: The Contest over Ethnic Identity in California’s Fourth-Grade Mission Curriculum,” Southern California Quarterly 92, no. 2 (2010): 161-197.

[4] As early as 1771, the Tongva resisted the Spaniards’ incursions and abuses. As the Catholic News Agency has put it, “At the time [1771], Spanish soldiers in the area were occasionally provoking serious conflicts with the indigenous Tongva population. On one occasion, a Spanish solider raped two indigenous women….The indigenous community, angered by the soldiers’ abuses, at one point confronted the mission.” John Dietler, Heather Gibson, and Benjamin Vargas add, “At Mission San Gabriel, five major uprisings were documented through trial transcripts and missionary correspondence.” Perhaps the most celebrated revolt was the one planned and led in 1785 by Nicolás José, a neophyte, and Toypurina, a medicine woman. See Jonah McKeown, “Our Lady of Sorrows Painting Recovered from Burned California Mission Church,” Catholic News Agency, October 15, 2020, https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/our-lady-of-sorrows-painting-recovered-from-burned-california-mission-church-55051. John Dietler, Heather Gibson, and Benjamin Vargas, “’A Mourning Dirge Was Sung’: Community and Remembrance at Mission San Gabriel,” in Forging Communities in Alta California, ed. Kathleen L. Hull and John G. Douglass (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018), 69; Steven W. Hackel, “Sources of Rebellion: Indian Testimony and the Mission San Gabriel Uprising of 1785,” Ethnohistory 50, no. 4 (2003): 643-669; and Cecilia Rasmussen, “Shaman and Freedom-Fighter Led Indians’ Mission Revolt,” Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2001, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2001-jun-10-me-8853-story.html.

[5] Rosa-Linda Fregoso, MeXicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 103.

[6] Carey McWilliams, Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (New York: Duell, Sloane & Pearce, 1946), 22.

[7] Thanks to Ernie Chavez for pointing out the Gateway Plaza Monument’s resemblance to Puerta de Elvira.

[8] William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of California, 2004). Phoebe Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).

[9] Gutfreund 180-181.

[10] Baron L. Pineda, “’First Hispanic Pope, First Hispanic Saint’: Whiteness, Founding Fathers, and the Canonization of Friar Junípero Serra,” Latino Studies 16 (2018): 287.

[11] Carolina A. Miranda, “Father Serra’s Fall from Grace: The Toppling of the Sainted Friar’s Statue in L.A. Signals Hope for a Reframed State History,” Los Angeles Times, June 22, 2020: E1.

[12] Mychal Denzel Smith, Stakes Is High: Life after the American Dream (New York: Bold Type Books, 2020), 37.

[13] Maylei Blackwell, “Indigeneity,” in Keywords for Latina/o Studies, ed. Deborah R. Vargas, Nancy Raquel Mirabal, and Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (New York: New York University Press, 2017), 100.

[14] Catherine S. Ramírez, The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009). Elizabeth R. Escobedo, From Coveralls to Zoot Suits: The Lives of Mexican American Women on the World War II Home Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[15] Author’s interview with Sandra de la Loza and Arturo Romo, December 3, 2020 (in author’s possession). I base my descriptions of the Sleepy Lagoon Memorial on this interview and on the design materials the artists generously shared with me.

[16] Arturo Romo and Sandra de la Loza, “Final Concept Design Narrative: Sleepy Lagoon Memorial,” June 25, 2020 (in possession of author).

[17] Carolina A. Miranda, “Goodbye, Guy on a Horse: A New Wave of Monument Design Is Changing How We Honor History,” Los Angeles Times, July 23, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-07-23/momument-debate-honor-history-new-design-goodbye-guy-on-a-horse

[18] Author’s interview with de la Loza and Romo.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] According to 2019 Census data, 98.4% of the residents of Maywood, for example, are Latinx.

[22] Author’s interview with de la Loza and Romo.

[23] Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States, 2nd Edition (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1990), 207.

[24] Romo and de la Loza, “Final Concept Design Narrative.”

[25] Ibid.

Catherine S. Ramírez, chair of the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is a scholar of Mexican American history; race, migration, and citizenship; Latinx literature and visual culture; comparative ethnic studies; gender studies; and speculative fiction. She is the author of Assimilation: An Alternative History and The Woman in the Zoot Suit: Gender, Nationalism, and the Cultural Politics of Memory and she is a co-editor of Precarity and Belonging: Labor, Migration, and Noncitizenship. She has also written for the New York TimesThe Atlantic, and Public Books

Postcards Series

Oh Salinas! Song, Story and Punk Rock Behind the Lettuce Curtain

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


Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

George B. Sánchez-Tello

The long white buses are unmarked. The paint job on the bus panels looks thin and cheap. If I stare long enough, I could probably make out the name of the school district or church or factory under that white layer of cover. The buses idle in an empty parking lot which is pockmarked with potholes partially filled with drainage. The gravel is crumbling. The people boarding the buses stand in single file. Their informal uniform consists of jeans and sweatshirts, baseball hats, bandanas and other shards of cloth fashioned into face masks.

In the distance, mist hovers over the fields. The buses will carry them to those fields. Soon the workers will be silhouettes in the distance, bent over and picking, working themselves up and down the rows of lettuce, strawberry and spinach.

Every one of them has a name. A home they come from. A language they were born into and another adopted for work. Most of those people have children. I always wondered who they were and what was their story. None of this is new. There was no “news peg to hang it on,” as an editor would say. So I wrote a song.

In the pre-dawn dust of the parking lot the workers form a line
They board the long white transport bus and hope the kids are fine
Left home alone with the little ones
The cousins will take care
Mom wraps a t-shirt around her face to filter out the filthy air
No food to wake the little ones
Pop tarts will do just fine
Gonna’ make do with what we got
Gotta’ stretch every single last dime
Why?
Cause that’s where we’re at.

A few miles away, on a given Friday night, the children of those workers sing along. In a small café or the back room of a Mexican restaurant, bodies pack together, in their own uniform of jeans, faded black t-shirts with band logos, jackets or vests quilted with small square patches. Everyone joins in to sing:

Another song about the Salad Bowl
About the place that we live
This valley can be a prison
Just ask the kids!

Where We’re At” is a song I wrote for Rum & Rebellion, a punk rock band from Salinas, a farm town in Monterey County on California’s Central Coast. We were one of many: from Salas, Chole, Prunetucky, Watson and King City. We played in cafes, backyards, apartments, community centers, storage sheds, bars, restaurants, parking lots and clubs.

Rum & Rebellion songs were a refuge for stories. A place to safely express my voice – literal and literary. During the day, I worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the Salinas Californian and later the Monterey County Herald. I often wrote newspaper articles about crime, education and local politics. I wrote songs about what I witnessed: The tired paletero. The teenager walking to school. The father of a lifer. The campesino. Portraits of the people, stories and moments between me and the farm fields that surrounded a town known for labor, e. coli and, of course, Mr. Steinbeck. What was otherwise setting in an article became a story in a song.

Salinas Valley V.2 courtesy of Álvaro Marquez (linocut-based serigraphy from the series Al Norte y P’atras/North and Back)

For being a small, farm town, Salinas has a population of about 150,000, making it the largest city in Monterey County. Someone once said the population doubled during the harvest season. Of course, it was exaggeration, but the harvest – or more like the people harvesting – was inherent in all aspects of life in Salas. Education officials coordinate with districts in Washington and Arizona as families migrate to work the harvest elsewhere. The school districts start later in the winter to account for families returning from Mexico. For many years the town was segregated: Whites to the west, Mexicans to the east, or the Alisal, as it was called. The annual César Chávez march is not a relic from a Chicano Studies class, but a testament to community, organizing and the continuing ability to mobilize in support of one another.

Image courtesy of Scott MacDonald 

Not all Rum & Rebellion songs were high-minded: I wrote about crushes on an older woman and colleagues. And drinking.

I wrote angry responses:  as in the song “No Charity

Don’t need no charity
Got my own pair of lungs
There are no voiceless
there’s only repression

And songs – “Hey Armando!”, “No Folk Song (New DA Blues),” “Not Down”, “Four Years” – about prisoners. All of whom I’d met and spoken with.

If there was a news peg, I filed an article. But the daily, almost taken for granted, became song. I think one of my favorite compliments of Rum & Rebellion lyrics was the disappointment from one person after she learned I was from Los Angeles and not Salas.

Rum & Rebellion came together after a freelance assignment for Punk Planet, one of the national punk ‘zines at the time. Scott MacDonald, a photographer for the Salinas Californian, and I spent a weekend with Against Me! and Lucero. Scott also played drums. I could play guitar. I could write. And yell.    

Image courtesy of Scott MacDonald 

As a reporter, there were stories I carried with me, stories I’d witnessed, that would never get past my editors. Like the quiet dignity of campesinos lining up for work in the early morning: a sight so familiar in East Salinas it had become a regular backdrop. Or the ritual of family members waiting in line outside county jail on visiting day. Stories that required more nuance than I could fit into a 12-inch print article. Or stories that required a different worldview than most of the papers’ readers and editors.  

There were subtle reminders, like the “news from home” section that carried articles from the Midwest. Maybe it was because I was from Los Angeles and I had plenty of co-workers from other parts of California, or simply knowing home for many in Salinas was Mexico. Sometimes they were blatant: like a red faced, irate white editor telling me “everybody knows Latinos are the most macho people.”

I can’t pin it on a single editor, though there were certainly a few that reminded me. Because I think I learned lessons about what to share and what to withhold long before I became a writer. Lessons about the sense of security in silence.  Lessons learned by parents who, in turn, transmitted them to me. Lessons of “Americanization” taught by the Sisters of Loretto across the southwest two generations before my birth. Lessons of silence wrought by the onset of the Guatemalan Civil War. Lessons of hiding in plain sight after my family arrived in Los Angeles after the mass deportation of Mexican and Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression. Lessons of obedience when my father began working for the Los Angeles Police Department. And the lesson that no matter how I spoke, what I wore or where I lived, I’d never fit comfortably into an affluent white suburb.  

When I wrote my entrance application essay for Saint Francis High School, I took seriously the invitation to write about someone I admired. I wrote about Steve Clark, Def Leppard’s founding guitarist. I still go back and forth about whether that was one time when I should have kept a story to myself. By the time I wrote my entrance essay for Loyola High, I had “learned” better.

As a reporter, I had my own uniform: I wore a collared shirt and necktie. With my black and white Doc Marten brogues, I had a distinct, pachuco-inspired style. But it was still a shirt and tie. A shirt and tie I wore purposefully to access what Nolan Cabrera calls “white immunity,” or the protection from disparate treatment. Day in and day out, sitting on the press bench in a courtroom, I couldn’t help but notice that the people who looked like me also wore uniforms: either orange jumpsuits for inmates or green and khaki of the sheriff’s deputies. Those with ties were attorneys, the judge and, on the rare occasion, a defendant. And me.  

I learned to wear a tie at Loyola, an all-boys high school. By that point, I had learned to be careful of what I said in front of who. To be aware of authority. Eventually writing became the place where I could express myself freely.     

When my editor caught a Rum & Rebellion acoustic set at the Cherry Bean and he asked me to write more articles like my songs, I appreciated the compliment, but I couldn’t simply shrug off the decades and generations of learned and practiced silence. Thankfully there were those who wouldn’t remain silent.

Touring punk bands typically bypass Salinas, heading north to Santa Cruz or San Jose. The exception were those that were connected through the Razacore network of punks who could put up bands and shows in farm towns outside the bigger cities. Thanks to Eduardo of the band Outraged in Watson, Limp Wrist came through. Argentina’s Boom Boom Kid did a show in Salas. But there were two bands – La Plebe and Los Dryheavers – with roots in Salas who always returned from San Pancho and San Jo to play periodically. Those shows were the best.

Salas punk shows meant 50-100 young, sweaty bodies squeezed up against the walls, counters and the band itself. Shows with booze were at the Penny, an English Pub, and all-ages shows were up the street at the Cherry Bean, a local café.

When the Dryheavers played, the guitarists, bassist and singer encircled the drummer. They usually had to play with their backs to the crowd to ensure the space to strum and, in the singer’s case, make sure the crush of the crowd didn’t lead to teeth getting knocked out.   

There is a story about the Dryheavers. It is too good to ruin by finding out if it’s true. The Dryheavers “played” the Warped Tour. Except Warped’s Kevin Lyman didn’t invite Los Dryheavers. They simply packed up their van and drove along with the Warped caravan. At each stop, the Dryheavers set up outside the festival and played. With the exception of Kory, all the Dryheavers were big, heavy Chicanos. Not even Warped security wanted to bother them, or so the story goes. 

Image courtesy of Scott MacDonald 

One Salas show, in between songs, the Dryheavers’ singer, Hector, took a moment to speak. First, he needed to catch his breath. Not uncommon.

“My family works hard. They work the fields, like your families,” said Hector, slightly gasping from screaming and trying to breathe through the humid air thick with sweat and body odor.  

Hector turned to Felix, one of the Dryheavers’ guitarists, and asked what his parents did.

“Big pimpin,” he responded.

The sudden pivot from vulnerable self-admission and statement of solidarity to crude humor: I laughed. That was Salas punk – irreverent, political by imposition and impatient for the next song. It was Chicano Punk Rock. It was Immigrant Punk. It was Los Dryheavers, La Plebe, Outraged, Uzi Suicide, The Gunslinger, The Kings Kids, Dear Avarice, The Achievement, Cali Nation, Bound to Break, Madtown Mulligan, Darktown Rounders, Chainsaw Death Squad, Toxic U.S. and so many others.


“juntado” from the album i am plotting my way out
“no folk song” from the album i am plotting my way out
“desesperados” from the album i am plotting my way out
“boulevard” from the album i am plotting my way out
“hey fucker” from the album i am plotting my way out
“witness” from the album i am plotting my way out

Notes:

George B. Sánchez-Tello lives, writes and teaches in Los Angeles.

For Mark Cantu: El mejor recuerdo es una simple canción para alguien que ya no está.QEPD.

Thank you: Scott MacDonald, Claudia Meléndez-Salinas and Clarissa Aljentera, colleagues from the Salinas Californian and Monterey County Herald who added valuable suggestions and edits.

Postcard Series

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

Reviews

Breathing Life into the Archive: A Review of Richardson’s Bearing Witness While Black

Elizabeth E. Sine

Seas of cellphones floating above the anchors of outstretched arms; the litany of hashtags bearing the names of the dead; livestream footage broadcasted by protestors with boots on the ground; the videos that capture for the world to see the life being taken from Black bodies by police—all of these have become recognizable features of the movement against police brutality and for Black lives, which has swept the nation and the world over the past decade.  But they are more than mere characteristics. They are critical mechanisms by which the movement travels, transmits messages, grows, and pushes back against the daily horrors of structural racism and state violence within the United States.  They are examples of a political practice that Allissa V. Richardson calls “Black witnessing,” which has played a constitutive role in what has arguably become the most powerful movement of our time.  In her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Richardson examines the forms of Black witnessing that animate the Black Lives Matter movement, while situating them within the much longer arc of witnessing practices that have helped shape historic struggles for Black liberation.  In the process, her book brings into focus just how much efforts to combat the horrors of white supremacy and to sustain movements for racial justice have relied on often-overlooked acts of seeing and truth-telling that have been undertaken by Black witnesses past and present.

As she builds on a growing body of research that investigates African Americans’ use of cell phones and social media, Richardson bases her study especially on a pool of interviews she conducted with fifteen prominent Black witnesses, along with in-depth analyses of their Twitter timelines.  Her interviewees are diverse in their gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationships to the Black Lives Matter movement, offering important insight into the patterns, interconnections, and differences that characterize their experiences and perspectives as Black witnesses.  She organizes her analysis into three parts: Smartphones, Slogans, and Selfies.  Across these three sections, the broad strokes of her work situate the smartphone era in a longer history of Black struggle, provide an archaeology of contemporary Black witnessing practices, and examine the visual iconography of Black protest journalism in the age of Black Lives Matter, along with its implications for Black witnesses and broader efforts for racial justice.

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

One of Richardson’s core contributions in Bearing Witness While Black is her centering of Blackness within her exploration of witnessing and its relationship to movement formation.  In positing a distinctly Black witnessing as the focus of her study, she makes the case not only that Black people bear witness differently than others but, further, that witnessing has been a vital arena in which Black people have staked the evidentiary foundations of an oppositional narrative about race, power, and democracy within the United States.  Black witnessing carries important legal weight for the pursuit of racial justice in courts.  It also has a powerful capacity to mobilize public action, fueling pushback against racist policing patterns and the institutional racism that undergirds them.  At least as significantly for Richardson is the role that it plays in linking Black people to one another.  Particularly in the context of crisis, as Richardson puts it, Black witnessing functions as “a form of connective tissue among Black people that transcends place.”[1]  Rather than distancing or depersonalizing the connection between the victims of atrocity and the viewers, as the main currents of media witnessing scholarship suggest, she argues that cellphone footage of anti-Black violence, when seen by Black people, “blurs [the line] between viewer and victim.”[2]  For those who bear witness while Black (and some allied people of color, whom she includes in her analysis), Richardson’s work underscores that incidents of anti-Black violence are never isolated or episodic in nature.  Rather, they grow out of, occur within, and are experienced through the context of systemic violence and generational trauma that history has wrought upon Black people for centuries.

As richly nuanced as it is in the ways it engages and builds upon media witnessing theory, Richardson’s work is also firmly anchored in and driven by the imperatives of praxis.  Drawing on her experiences as a journalist, as a teacher of mobile journalism, and as an African-American woman who grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland in the age of the police assault on Rodney King and the L.A. Rebellion, she writes with an acute attentiveness to the stakes of the news-making practices she analyzes, including for witnesses themselves.  Having worked with citizen journalists in a wide range of contexts, including in South Africa at the front lines of the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis and in Morocco in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, she also speaks to the comparative dimensions of witnessing practices across a variety of social movements.  She highlights a certain degree of relatability that links the use of smartphones and social media by participants in the Black Lives Matter movement with that of people in the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Arab Spring.  

Yet, in significant ways, she also emphasizes that the scope, scale, and systematic nature of racial violence to which African Americans bear witness make their witnessing even more akin to that of Holocaust survivors than to protestors in these other movements.  As she explains, when Black people bear witness to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and far, far too many others, their actions simultaneously memorialize “the more than 10 million Africans who were sold into bondage across the Atlantic Ocean . . . the 5,000 African American men, women, and children who continued to be victims of lynching across the United States . . . [and] the more than 1 million African American and Latinx men and women who have fallen victim to mass incarceration since the late 1970s.”[3]  Black witnessing honors those subjected to suffering and premature death, all the while refusing to let the public forget the past, or, for that matter, look away from the horrors of the present.  Therein lies its urgency.

It is not only the long history of anti-Black racism that weighs on the present.  As Richardson demonstrates, contemporary Black witnessing practices also carry forth the legacies of Black survival, struggle, and resistance.  As she situates the Black Lives Matter movement within a much longer genealogy of Black liberatory struggles, Richardson charts a history of Black witnessing that links the role of slave narratives, African American newspapers and magazines, television, early internet-based social networks, and Black Twitter along a historical continuum—forming “an unbroken chain of brave seers.”[4]  Earlier generations laid the groundwork for the modes of witnessing we have seen in the past decade, Richardson argues.  The primary factor that distinguishes the witnessing practices of our contemporary moment is the accessibility of the technology involved.  With the introduction of the smartphone, witnesses the world over acquired “a tool that would allow anyone to create and distribute media quickly, without the need for a privileged gatekeeper.”[5]  Combined with social media platforms and speedy internet connections, the smartphone has equipped today’s Black witnesses to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, while at the same time enabling them to share, collectively grieve, strategize, and organize in response to news of police brutality at a more rapid pace and on a more thoroughly mass scale than ever before.

While Richardson makes clear her position on the side of viewing Black witnessing as a positive force for racial justice, her endorsement is not the kind that romanticizes.  In fact, some of the richest parts of her analysis are those where she explores the tensions and contradictions inherent in the practice.  Among the troubling aspects of Black witnessing she examines is the way that the smartphone technology on which today’s protest journalists rely—“the very tool that empowers the activists”—carries with it “the potential to extinguish them.”[6]  Highlighting the growing use of Stingray tracking technology by authorities and harking back to the role of COINTELPRO in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Richardson complicates any inclination to celebrate the smartphone’s democratizing effects without reckoning with the ways it expands the terrain for surveillance and political repression. 

Graphic illustration of the impact of COINTELPRO by Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, 1976

Another set of challenges Richardson investigates is the potential harm that comes from seeing itself.  On one level, bearing witness to atrocity can have serious emotional and psychological effects on the viewer, not to mention the threat of backlash from authorities to which they expose themselves.  (Many will remember Ramsey Orta in this respect, the video witness who was the only one from the scene of Eric Garner’s death in 2014 who was arrested.)  On another level, when footage of Black police victims’ last moments is shown repeatedly, often unedited and without freeze frame or face blurring techniques, the imagery may do more to normalize racist violence and uphold the terror of white supremacy than to challenge it.  All this leads Richardson to the assertion that how such footage is shared is as significant as whether it is shared. 

Poster by Tony Carranza

It is noteworthy that Bearing Witness While Black entered into print in June 2020, at the very same moment that the nation’s racial uprisings reached peak levels of intensity following the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others.  While Richardson could not have anticipated the exact synchronicity of events, it is a testament to just how “on time” her work truly is.[7]  Questions remain about how Black witnessing practices may vary across class lines, since Richardson’s interview sample overwhelmingly comprises graduates of prominent universities with advanced degrees, a factor that Richardson herself acknowledges.  The relational dynamics that link the experiences and perspectives of Black-identified witnesses with those of non-Black witnesses of color is another topic that some readers may wish to see analyzed further, as her discussion on this front is relatively brief.  Still, well researched and engagingly written, the book offers a fresh critical lens on the Black Lives Matter movement and on the possibilities and perils of efforts for social change more generally, adding significantly to both scholarly and broader public conversations.  It will be of particular interest not only to media and journalism scholars, but also scholars of race/ethnicity, social movements, technology and history, as well as social activists and organizers for whom it bears lessons.

Elizabeth E. Sine is a historian of race, labor, and social movements in California and the broader United States (Ph.D., University of California San Diego) and Lecturer in History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is author of the recent book, Rebel Imaginaries: Labor, Culture, and Politics in Depression-Era California (Duke University Press, 2021) and co-editor of Another University Is Possible (University Readers, 2010).  She is also on the steering committee of R.A.C.E. Matters in San Luis Obispo, California.


[1] Allissa V. Richardson, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism (Oxford University Press, 2020), 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richardson, xii-xiii.

[4] Richardson, 44.

[5] Richardson, 39.

[6] Richardson, 114.

[7] The reference here to being “on time” comes from Ivory Perry, qtd. in George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 269.

Interviews

Forever Prisoners: An Interview with Elliott Young

Adam Goodman sat down with professor, author, and human rights advocate Elliott Young to discuss his new book which shines a light on the often cruel and senseless policies that make up the intersection of immigration and criminal justice in the United States.

Adam Goodman: The book’s title, Forever Prisoners, is provocative. How did you come up with it and what does it mean?

Elliott Young:  A friend who does prison abolition activism work and criminal justice said that the stories I tell sound a lot like the Guantanamo prisoners who have been there for twenty years, many of them not charged with any crimes. And so, this moniker: forever prisoners. The more I thought about it, I said, “Yes, forever prisoners is exactly the state in which many of these immigrants found themselves.” Of course, most of them didn’t spend their entire lives in prison. Some died after being detained, but many got out; but even when people get out, immigrants found themselves in positions of rightlessness or diminished rights. For people deported to places in Central America where there is lots of gang violence or political violence, they find themselves also like prisoners, in the sense of being trapped in their houses. So, the long reach of the tentacles of the prison seemed like an apt metaphor to think about the condition in which immigrants have been living for the last 140 years.

AG: Many scholars of immigration detention focus on the 1980s to the present. You start a century earlier. Why? What do we learn by tracing that longer history?

EY: My previous book was about Chinese immigration and starts off in the mid-nineteenth, so I knew that the Chinese were being detained and deported (obviously not in the numbers that we have today) right from the beginning of when the federal immigration system was set up. It seemed that the origins of that system were important to understand and to try to understand the trajectory from the late nineteenth century all the way through to the present. Not to say that there were no changes, but to track those changes so we don’t make the mistake of thinking we could return to an idealized earlier era. Sometimes people say 1954, “Oh, that was the moment like immigrant detention ended.” Well, 1954 to the 1980s was not a good time for Mexicans who were coming across the border without authorization.

AG: One of the things I found most compelling about your book is that you tell the history of immigration detention through a series of incredible, incredibly revealing, and often disturbing stories. The book’s first story takes place not on Ellis Island or on Angel Island, but on McNeil Island, off the coast of Washington. Why there?

Fong Sun was arrested in Santa Barbara in 1916 and eventually sentenced to two years on McNeil Island for forging a residence certificate. Source: Fong Sun, inmate 2733, Photos and Records of Prisoners Received, 1875-1939, McNeil Island Penitentiary, RG 129, NARA, Seattle.

EY: McNeil Island was a remote prison island off the coast of Tacoma, one of the three penitentiaries in the United States in this period. I started to do research on Chinese imprisoned there and discovered that they were put there for unauthorized entry—but they were sentenced to hard labor, which was a prison sentence. They were not simply put in this prison pending deportation, which is now the justification for imprisoning immigrants. In this case, they were actually given sentences, but they didn’t go through a judicial trial, so this is completely illegal based on the Constitution. Eventually the Supreme Court, in a landmark 1896 case, decided that you couldn’t do that. You could imprison or detain immigrants pending deportation, but you couldn’t impose criminal sentence on them without a judicial trial.

In this early period, they are experimenting with what to do with immigrants, so they put them in McNeil Island. It was clear that Chinese at that point were crossing the border from Canada to come across into the Pacific Northwest without authorization. The easiest thing for the immigration authorities was to just take them to the border of Canada and push them across. But at that point, Canada had established a head tax requirement for the Chinese and the migrants didn’t have the money to pay. So, Canada refused them entry and they ended up in McNeil Island prison for years, while there were diplomatic negotiations with the Canadian government. Eventually, in the early 1890s, U.S. officials deported them back to China. It’s in this early period that you see the U.S. government trying to work out both the legal grounds for holding immigrants as well as developing the whole bureaucracy and mechanisms for deporting people across the globe.

This photograph depicts, from left to right, Hop Key (1144), Chung Fung (1139), Hing Tom (1141), and Jan Jo (1142). Source: Photograph of Chinese prisoners and McNeil Island Prison, Photos and Records of Prisoners Received, 1875-1939, McNeil Island Penitentiary, Records of the Bureau of Prisons, NARA, Seattle, Record Group 129.

AG: That raises the question: What do U.S. officials do when there’s nowhere to deport someone? What happens when there’s a country that’s not willing to accept them? This comes up in the case of Nathan Cohen, who found himself in extended—perhaps even indefinite—detention.

EY: Nathan Cohen came from a part of Russia that’s kind of a borderlands region. He was Jewish, he had migrated to Brazil and spent a few years there, then went to New York in 1912. He ends up going to the Deep South, because he has relatives there, and opens a business with his uncle in Jacksonville, Florida. Within a short period of time, he gets married and then he’s swindled by his family. He loses his busines and his wife runs off with his best friend, and this sends him into a funk where he essentially becomes mute. He goes to Baltimore, where his sister was living, and gets put into a mental hospital run by the state, a public mental hospital, and gets declared insane. And because he had immigrated within three years, that declaration of insanity was grounds for deportation. So, he gets sent to Ellis Island and they put him on a ship to go back to Brazil. But Brazil refuses to take him. The ship goes on to Argentina, who also says they don’t want him. The U.S. government is trying to contact the Russians. This is during World War I, Cohen is a Jew, and there’s anti-Jewish programs going on in this region, so Russia isn’t interested in taking him. So, he’s essentially stateless. The press describes him as the wandering Jew, the man without a country. And so, he gets sent back to New York. After spending several months in detention on Ellis Island, they try to deport him again. The same thing happens. 

AG: It’s a nightmare.

“He has no address, belongs nowhere, is wanted nowhere.” Drawing of Nathan Cohen in The Pittsburgh Press, 18 Apr. 1915.

EY: It’s a nightmare; a Kafkaesque nightmare. The last time when he comes back to New York Harbor. The authorities don’t even let him off the boat because they realize that once he’s on U.S. soil he could have legal claims. What happens with Nathan Cohen, eventually the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Knights of Pythias, which was a fraternal organization of which he was a member, intervene and agree to pay for his upkeep in a private sanatorium in Connecticut. He’s taken off the ship and lives in that sanatorium for about a year. Then he just dies, kind of mysteriously, since he’s still a young man at this point (mid-30s), and is buried on Staten Island.

Nathan Cohen’s story is fascinating on its own, but it also led me to discover that there was this whole other system of incarceration in the early twentieth century. Mental hospitals held many more citizens and noncitizens than detention centers or even in jails and prisons. By the 1960s, they started phasing out mental institutions in part because of the critiques of the way mental institutions were handled, and then we see the rise of mass incarceration. What we have now is lots of people who have mental illness, but instead of being in mental institutions they are in prisons and jails. 

AG: Something else that stands out is the history of the U.S. government deporting people from Latin America to the United States, rather than vice versa, and detaining them during World War II.

EY: During World War II, there was this semi-secretive FBI program to identify and roundup Axis nationals in Latin America through the U.S. embassies in various countries. Thirteen countries participated in this program. I focus on the case of Seiichi Higashide, who is of Japanese origin, went to Peru as a young man, developed a business there selling goods, and married a Japanese Peruvian woman. He’s put on this list but manages to evade detection for a few years with the help of a local police chief. When he’s finally picked up, Peruvian officials force him onto a U.S. military transport ship and he’s taken to Panama. He’s briefly held at a U.S. military camp there, then put on another ship and taken to New Orleans. From New Orleans they put him on a train and he ends up in Texas. His wife and two children eventually decide to follow him to the United States to keep the family United. The story raises all these questions that we’re facing today about family separation. According to the government, all these people voluntarily went into detention, but it wasn’t so voluntary when the father was forcibly picked up and taken away and the family ends up joining him. U.S. officials detained them in a camp in Crystal City, Texas, which is actually 40 miles from the current family detention center in Dilley. There’s a long history of family detention in the heart of South Texas that continues to this very day. 

AG: Another connection to the present is the history you trace of people resisting and organizing against detention. Tell us about the detention of Haitians and Cubans in the 1970s and 1980s, the uprisings in Oakdale, Louisiana, and Atlanta, Georgia, which you describe as “the longest prison takeover in U.S. history.” 

EY: In the 1970s, you have Haitians escaping from political unrest and political violence thrown into detention. And almost universally, their asylum claims are rejected. Then, in 1980, there’s this massive boatlift of people from Cuba, the Mariel boatlift, and these are people escaping from a communist country. Initially, Carter sort of welcomes them with open arms into the United States. But this group of 125,000 Cubans was unlike the Cubans who had fled Castro in the early 1960s. Many of them are Black, and they come from lower socioeconomic groups. Their reception in Miami was not as welcoming as the reception in the 1960s had been. They were seen and stigmatized as criminals and as being mentally ill, because there was this idea that Castro just sort of emptied his jails and mental institutions. 

The U.S. government responds by establishing mass immigrant detention spaces on military bases around the country. And the idea is they need to be processed to figure out who are the criminals, who are the mentally ill people, and figure out who has family sponsors. After a couple of years, it’s almost entirely Black Cubans who are still in detention. After about a year, almost all of them are paroled into the United States, but they still haven’t regularized their status. Some of those people commit low level offenses, many of them are picked up on marijuana possession charges. Some of them have assault charges and a handful of them do have more serious violent crimes like homicide. So those people are then criminally sentenced and do their time. But after they do their time, because of the immigration regulations, they are now ineligible for their status to be regularized. They face indefinite detention pending deportation.

Eventually, they are sent to Atlanta Penitentiary and to Oakdale, Louisiana, where there was another detention center. Many of them languish there for years. They arrived in 1980 and a few hundred of them were held until the late 1980s. The Castro regime was not interested in having these people return, so they were essentially in prison indefinitely. Then, in November 1987, the Cuban government agrees to take back 2,000 people. Word spreads to these two prisons that they’re going to be deported to Cuba, and that sets off an uprising, first in Oakdale and then a couple of days later in Atlanta. 

AG: It’s incredible that these uprisings were more or less coordinated.

Cubans on roof of Atlanta Penitentiary during takeover in 1987 with US and Cuban flags. Scott Robinson, Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP.

EY: They had word through the grapevine and through the media that this was going to happen, that these deportations were imminent. So, the uprising happens in Oakdale, they take over the prison, they seize hostages, and they start torching the buildings. Then the same thing in Atlanta. This is not too long, around 16 years, after Attica, and in that case the National Guard was called in and more than 40 people were massacred. So, the question was, “How is this standoff going to end?” Somewhat miraculously, only one Cuban was shot and killed in Atlanta. No one else died in this episode and after two weeks they finally come to an agreement thanks to the intervention of a Cuban American Bishop from Miami who encouraged the people to give up the hostages and to end the siege. They also received a commitment from the U.S. government to conduct individual asylum reviews. Finally, after Thanksgiving, they leave the prison with salsa music blaring and they give themselves up and turn over the hostages. The larger point of this story is that these uprisings offer insights into the beginnings of “crimmigration,” or the overlapping of criminal justice and immigration.

AG: Throughout the book you show how the criminalization of noncitizens has resulted in the detention and deportation of long-term residents, many of whom have U.S. citizen children. One of the book’s most moving stories is that of Mayra Machado.

EY: I knew for the last chapter I wanted to focus on crimmigration today, and probably a Central American case, since increasingly those are the people detained. As I was looking for media stories, one day I get a call from a detention center in Louisiana. I accepted the call and it was Mayra Machado, who I had done an expert witness asylum declaration for a couple of years earlier. That case was unsuccessful; she was deported.

Mayra was brought to the United States from El Salvador when she was five years old and grew up in Southern California. Then her family moved to Arkansas. When she was eighteen years-old she wrote a hot check; clearly a crime, a mistake. She was picked up, charged, and sentenced to six months in some camp for rehabilitation. She did her time, got out, and ended up having children. Then, in 2015, around Christmas time, she went to Hobby Lobby to buy decorations. Her son left his glasses at the store, and when they returned to get them, she was pulled over on failure to yield traffic violation. Because of the expansion of these Secure Communities agreements and 287(g) agreements, where local law enforcement was basically authorized as immigration agents, they ran her information through the system and discovered that she didn’t have authorization to be in the country. In reality, this is a woman who grew up in the United States, was a working mom—wasn’t some kind of violent criminal—and she’s all of a sudden faced with permanent banishment from the country and separation from her three U.S. citizen children. 

I hadn’t actually even been in contact with her personally, but she had my number and she called me up and she said, “I came back into the United States.” Police had picked her up on a traffic violation and put her back in detention while awaiting deportation. At this point she was representing herself. Immigration law is extremely, extremely complicated. When immigrants, as smart as they are, try to represent themselves, the chance of them succeeding is almost nil. I was able to get her a pro bono lawyer from Loyola Law School (New Orleans). And I agreed to work on her case as an expert witness. 

Mayra Machado and her children in hearing in Arkansas on Jan. 18, 2019. Photograph by Magaly Marvel. Courtesy of Mayra Machado.

AG: How did you start providing expert witness testimony in immigration and asylum cases? What is immigration court like?

EY: This book is really about the present and from my perspective it’s sort of ethically obligatory to not only write about this from the ivory tower, but to actually use what you know to try to have an impact. And one of the ways to do this as an academic is by working on asylum cases.

In 2014, Steven Manning, a great immigration lawyer who runs the Innovation Law lab here in Portland, Oregon, contacted me and asked if I would do an expert witness country conditions declaration to inform the court about the political context related to claims being made. At this point I’ve done more than 400 of these.

Immigration courts are kind of like the Wild West. Immigration judges could decide what they will and won’t accept, so whether your claim has any grounds entirely depends on which immigration judge you get. In Louisiana, the rate of denial is over 90 percent, and some of the judges have 100 percent denial rates. Essentially, no matter what your claim, they’re going to deny it.

AG: It’s farcical.

EY: Yeah. In New York or San Francisco, you’ve got a much better shot. That being said, in almost all of the cases that I’ve worked on, the people actually do gain status or are able to avoid deportation. So, if you have a good lawyer and an expert witness—and if you’re also not in Louisiana or in one of these terrible jurisdictions—you can actually gain asylum. But the problem is, most immigrants are not represented by lawyers and most don’t have expert witnesses.

The hero of this story is Mayra, because if she hadn’t advocated for herself none of us would have gotten involved. Isabel Medina, Mayra’s lawyer, advocate Pablo Alvarado, the head of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and I went down to an ICE facility run by GEO, the private prison company, in a remote part of Louisiana. We presented all the evidence that when she had been deported back to El Salvador, she had been threatened by gangs with sexual assault and had also received serious threats against her life. But the immigration judge decided against her. Her lawyer appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, and while the appeal was pending (this was in January of 2020, a year ago), one night at 7:00 p.m. officials told Mayra that they were going to deport her and at 3:00 a.m. that same night they took her to an airport in Alexandria, Louisiana. She argued with them, saying, “No, I’ve got an appeal pending.” But they shackled her and put her on a plane back to El Salvador. 

AG: That’s harrowing, and also speaks to how detention and deportation affect U.S. citizens, like Mayra’s children. Something else that we’ve been circling around is the larger story you tell of how immigration detention became intertwined with the rise of mass incarceration writ large. 

EY: I’m glad you brought up the mass incarceration question because it’s really what brought me to this project. I was concerned about the mass incarceration of citizens, and also noticed that the literature tended not to focus on immigrants. I wanted to show how immigrant detention is inextricably linked to the mass incarceration of citizens since the 1980s. It’s not a coincidence that the immigrants you find in detention are almost entirely Black and Brown people. This is a racially biased system, enforcement is targeted against particular people, and so in that sense it’s very much linked to the mass incarceration of citizens and the rhetoric that we had from Trump about the “criminals” who are supposedly crossing the border. This is an especially exciting moment when the people arguing against mass incarceration and the folks arguing against immigrant detention can really see how these two systems work together, and then fight to end detention, to end prisons. 

AG: How can we accomplish that? Through abolition? Are there other solutions?

Immigration Enforcement Spending, Department of Homeland Security, Budget in Brief, 2003-2021.

EY: I’ll come out and tell you that I’m someone who has an abolitionist horizon. I believe that we should construct a world where there are no prisons, where there are no immigrant detention systems. People should not be in prison because they have come to this country without authorization or they’ve come to this country seeking refuge. It is an abomination, it’s inhumane, and it doesn’t need to be this way. We had 50,000 people a day in ICE detention a year ago. Now, because of Covid, that’s down to 16,000 a day, which is still way too high, but it shows that this system could be dramatically reduced and the sky won’t fall. So, I’m hoping, against my better judgment, that the new Biden administration will not return to the policies of Obama—which were terrible for immigrants and which led to the greatest number of immigrants detained and formally deported in U.S. history—and will instead push for radical transformation of the massive bureaucracy that criminalizes and prevents immigrants from coming to this country in the first place. 

Elliott Young is a professor of history at Lewis & Clark College and author, most recently, of Forever Prisoners: How the United States Made the World’s Largest Immigrant Detention System (2021).

Adam Goodman teaches history and Latin American and Latino studies at University of Illinois Chicago. He is the author of The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (2020).

Excerpts

A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area

Rachel Brahinsky and Alexander Tarr

In the long saga of the Bay Area, the East Bay is often cast in a secondary role to the more famous San Francisco. Perhaps best known as the place where UC Berkeley thrives, the East Bay is home to decades of urban and industrial growth that brought the whole region to global prominence under the moniker “San Francisco.” Though much writing on the region follows this line—that San Francisco is the central city of the larger region—we are interested in the ways that the East Bay is also, and has always been, central. At this book’s writing the entire East Bay was experiencing intense and rapid change as Silicon Valley tech firms moved in, and as Oakland sought to fast-track housing development to serve the broader regional economic boom. Meanwhile, the East Bay is home to a broad spectrum of communities, who collectively speak some 125 languages and who have forged social movements that shape national and even international politics, from the Left to the Right.


Posted: No alcohol . . . No racism. Rules announce a radically inclusive space for overlapping subcultures at the 924 Gilman music venue in Berkeley (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

A Shifting Center

We center many of the stories of this chapter in The Town, which is the affectionate local name for the city of Oakland, but we’ll also take you out to Emeryville, for a quick stroll through Berkeley, and north to the cities of Albany and Richmond. In choosing sites for this chapter, we were interested in broad representation, but we also looked for places that are suggestive of some of the larger struggles of the area, from policing to racial justice, economic development and cycles of displacement. We’re interested in the ways that today’s built environment reveals layers of the past—including important traces of the long history of human habitation prior to the Spanish and Anglo conquests.

As the original terminus of the trans- continental railroad in the nineteenth century, Oakland could have emerged as the socioeconomic powerhouse of the region. Instead, urban developers logged Oakland’s forests and capitalists built wealth around San Francisco’s deep-water port first, leaving Oakland to persist as a “second city” culturally, politically, and economically—even as the two cities shared workers, families, and ecosystems. The 1906 San Francisco quake and fire, which destroyed San Francisco’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods, could have shifted the regional urban core east to Oakland. But even though a large share of San Francisco’s industry and residents left at that time to populate the East Bay—Oakland’s Chinatown expanded, for example—and even though the educational powerhouse of UC Berkeley fostered generations of public intellectuals and planted the seeds of activist movements with global influence, San Francisco remained the capital city of the region.

Two of the key drivers of this ongoing dynamic are the wicked problems of race and class. Race-class exclusions drove post–World War II disinvestment, which meant that capitalist and middle-class wealth withdrew from Oakland. This flight-by-capital left the once-vibrant downtown relatively vacant for decades and weakened the urban tax base, even as urban-fringe neighborhoods boomed. By the 1960s, African Americans had made Oakland a central home, having been both displaced by San Francisco’s redevelopment of the Fillmore District and excluded from East Bay suburbs. At the same time, Oakland leaders also pursued urban redevelopment, uprooting those same communities to make way for free- ways and mega-developments. These projects improved regional mobility, but they left gaping wounds in the cityscape across Oakland’s multiracial working-class com- munities, disproportionately hitting Black, and later Latinx, homes and businesses.


Mandela Grocery Cooperative in 2019, just before plans were announced for a major expansion (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

These urban rearrangements intersected with the social configurations of the time. Before WWII, white violence was, at its most extreme, embodied by the Ku Klux Klan’s growth in Oakland and the island city of Alameda. After WWII it continued in the practices of the police and sheriff departments. The counterforce of groups like the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets emerged in part as a response to those conditions—and more. Though pop culture narratives tend to remember them for posing with guns in front of Oakland City Hall, for example, the Panthers’ “Ten Point Platform” included an emphasis on universal literacy and feeding people. It was a stance that emerged out of members’ everyday experiences of poverty and over-policing in The Town. These politics also grew from members’ intellectual investigations that crossed urban borders through- out the East Bay, with the public university and college systems playing a fundamental role in offering young people the chance to develop their ideas, and with intersecting social movements—including South Asian, Chicano, and labor movements—all learning from each other and in some cases joining together to demand better education at UC Berkeley and beyond. These earlier struggles set the stage for today’s Oakland and greater East Bay, in which the collective lived experience of people, across ethnic and racial lines, includes the apparent paradox of deep poverty alongside the riches of successive booms. With each force comes a counterforce.

Community struggles over access to affordable and safe housing offer a lesson in the complexity of the East Bay and its place in the region. In the 2010s, for example, the cost of housing rose sharply, housing development didn’t match job creation, and new proposals lacked sufficient affordable housing or enough protection for vulnerable residents in redeveloped neighborhoods. Oakland moved from the police blotter to the travel section of big city papers in the 2000s, and its reputation was reshaped by commercial boosters who encouraged a renaissance of new, young transplants to the area. But the housing crisis of the gentrification era was a problem with deeper historical roots. Outside of the urban cores, much (though not all) of the East Bay was first developed as a series of low-density urban-fringe neighborhoods, initiating a pattern of housing inequity that remains. Meanwhile, the capital that fled the Oakland core fifty years ago has returned quite unevenly.

Wealth’s renewed interest in Oakland has meant that some areas are receiving much-needed upgrades to dilapidated housing and commercial building stock, as well as city services, but often in forms that push out longtime Oaklanders, sparking revivals of housing-centered social movements. In fact, community members’ efforts to remain in their homes and neighborhoods are central to their role in making the East Bay. Indeed, the East Bay’s legacy of political organizing and creativity is quite alive, and community organizations have pushed for a vision of “development without displacement,” motivating a regional coalition to push for expansions of state and local rent protections, widening the geography of protest and struggle. These efforts intersect with energized local campaigns in many Bay Area cities, including the relatively small city of Richmond to the north. There, a long-growing progressive coalition turned ideals into pragmatic policy. Aiming to curb the toxic impact of local refineries, Richmond residents organized to raise the local minimum wage, bought back guns to remove them from the streets, and threatened the use of eminent domain (which is the city’s power to retake private property) as a way to help stop foreclosure-related displacement.

A 2006 mural outside the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. Artist Jason Dobbs; restored 2018 by the Community Rejuvenation Project (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

The stories of housing struggles thus link to the larger challenges of urban life and the balancing act between encouraging needed investment and supporting existing communities. With that in mind, this chapter raises issues and tells stories that are rooted in place, but tries to do so in a way that treads lightly on the very same landscapes that we find so interesting; we are aware of the mixed blessings of tourist attentions.

There are many other stories and paths that we trace in this chapter, stories of culture and art, innovations in everyday life, and long-buried histories that come to light. For us it adds up to this: it’s time to see and listen to the East Bay. Listen to the stories of the people who have built and fostered its many cultures and communities, giving these cities their character and sense of place. Dig deeper to understand the geographies that make and continue to remake these places from the ground up.

1500 Block of Adeline Street
Adeline Street Between 14th and 15th Streets, Oakland 94607

The fallout from the foreclosure crisis of the 2000s is written in the streets of Oakland. Much of that story is a painful one of displacement, but there are some important legacies of community organizing and resistance, and this block of West Oakland represents one epicenter for organizing where some residents used mass community pressure to save their homes. On December 6, 2011, for example, Adeline Street resident Gayla Newsome decided to put the rallying cry of a nationwide “Occupy Our Homes Day” into action. Together with a group of about a hundred activists from Occupy Oakland and ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment), Newsome and her three daughters successfully reclaimed their home of fifteen years, which was under active foreclosure. The family lived on this block, at the heart of one of the long contested residential spaces of West Oakland, where waves of eviction and foreclosure compounded upon decades of disinvestment. We’re not including her exact address here to maintain residential privacy.

Between 2005 and 2015, banks foreclosed on well over twenty thousand homes across Oakland, according to research by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP). The mass evictions of small property owners and renters that ensued were largely the result of predatory lending practices actively targeting low-income communities of color, as was later widely uncovered by researchers across the country. A report conducted by the nonprofit Urban Strategies Council in 2011 found that 42 percent of homes foreclosed in Oakland between 2007 and 2011 were acquired by large institutional investors, many of whom are based outside of Oakland. Some of them had previously been mortgage brokers, meaning they not only had access to valuable insider knowledge, but might have also played a part in creating the crisis in the first place. Others would later be prosecuted by the FBI for conspiring to rig foreclosure auctions in their own favor.

West Oakland saw a thick concentration of foreclosures and large-investor accumulation. Neill Sullivan’s REO Homes LLC, for example, snapped up over one hundred fore- closed homes in West Oakland alone. Sullivan focused on single-family homes, which are exempt from rent control by California state law; he followed those acquisitions with a round of evictions, serving 357 eviction notices between 2010 and 2016, according to public Rent Board data collected by AEMP researchers. The evictions helped clear the way for a neighborhood rebranding as West Oakland was sold as the “eclectic West Side” and the “new edge of Silicon Valley.”

Even as investors like Sullivan were taking control of the neighborhood, activists turned their energy toward the foreclosures and joined in to support Newsome and other neighborhood leaders. They formed the Foreclosure Defense Group, which sought to disrupt foreclosure auctions at the Alameda County Courthouse. The group worked to reclaim the homes of community members through direct action by reoccupying emptied homes; they would initiate a campaign of community pressure, garnering media attention and rallying a mass phone campaign to pressure the banks. Newsome’s home on Adeline Street was one of the success stories of this tactic. Organizers also used the foreclosure activism as a base-building effort, which meant that each home they reoccupied was an opportunity to knock on doors and talk to neighbors. Through this process they sought to develop stronger networks for community solidarity and support. (Section authored by Katja Schwaller)

Albany Bulb
1 Buchanan Street, Albany, CA 94706

The Albany Bulb is a place literally made from the ruins of Bay Area urbanization. This former landfill turned quasi-public park represents the alternative lives that capitalist cities inevitably produce through redevelopment and continual creation of consumer detritus. At the same time, the Albany Bulb is a phenomenally beautiful place to visit and offers a fascinating story about a Bay Area place that remains a bit less regulated and controlled than just about everywhere else.

Views from every corner of this park provide a panorama of the region. San Francisco looms misty and dreamlike across the bay. The trails teem with a wild mix of grasses, flowers, overgrown fennel—and art. Freestanding murals once dotted the edge of the marshy shoreline, and a mix of large sculpture and other installations, all of which can change year to year, is typically scattered throughout the park. The space has also often been home to people—disaffected, houseless, seeking connection that they couldn’t find in the urbanized parts of the region—those who, long before the Occupy movement, found ways to reclaim and reuse public spaces.


This is one of many works of art made from found and scrap materials at the Albany Bulb. Berkeley attorney Osha Neumann, who is known for representing houseless people, created this one, called The Beseeching Woman (foreground, photographed 2019 courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

For many years the city of Albany used this site to dump construction debris and municipal waste. The result was a thirty- one-acre lollipop-shaped peninsula colloquially known as the Bulb, with a landscape of twisted metal, slag left over from nearby mining, rusty pipes, and chunks of redeveloped streets, sometimes retaining their yellow lane-stripes. The landfill that produced the Bulb was one of several major sites along the East Bay waterfront that inspired the creation of the environmental nonprofit Save the Bay, which targeted the Bulb’s land- fill for closure in the early 1980s. The closing of the landfill in 1983 both created an opportunity for artists and coincided with the modern period of rising homelessness, so it is no surprise that people without homes adopted its knolls and tucks as their own. In between the chaotic beauty of wildflowers and trash-turned-art, people built outdoor kitchens, small homes from driftwood, and other shelter.

A move to incorporate the Bulb into the larger McLaughlin Eastshore State Park—named for Save the Bay cofounder Sylvia McLaughlin—has been underway since the early 2000s. This shift toward park formalization has raised the challenging question of which public has the right to use the space as they want. Those who found shelter here note that they improved the land, having built many of the long-used trails and gardens. City and state officials argue they must enforce regulations against overnight camping and off-leash dogs. Artists and hikers often enjoy the place for its unregulated surprises. The struggle has inspired feisty artistic responses to the exercise of state power. In 1999, for example, the landfill’s residents faced a highly publicized eviction. After the eviction, artists erected a monument to the homeless: a massive pile of shopping carts that was later mined for sculptural work across the park. However, in 2014 the most definitive of the many rounds of eviction took place, with the city paying people to leave with the signed promise of never returning.

Creative resistance to formalize the landscape into a planned conservation district has been taken up by the nonprofit Love the Bulb, which organizes art and cultural programming and walking tours that emphasize the unregulated nature of the place. Free-range artists continue to make and remake the place. Enter from the parking lot at the end of Buchanan, near the Golden Gate Fields racetrack; bring extra layers, as it’s typically colder out on the Bulb than in the parking lot.

Berkeley High School
1980 Allston Way, Berkeley 94704

Infuriatingly, many US schools are more segregated now than any time since the end of the Jim Crow era, a fact that undermines the narrative of civil rights progress that many hold dear. That’s part of what makes the Berkeley High School story unique. Back in 1994, the New York Times labeled Berkeley High the “most integrated school in America.” The school reflected the city’s diverse population, making the institution fertile ground for political and cultural debate and home to the country’s first and longest- running high school African American studies department. But all of this did not come easily—even in Berkeley. It was hard fought, and keeping programs like this alive continues to be a conscious struggle in a rapidly changing Bay Area.


Joshua Redman is one of several alumni featured on the art boxes that surround Berkeley High, which has
a history of student and teacher activism (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

In the heat of the civil rights struggle, Berkeley Unified School District launched a 1968 desegregation campaign titled Integration ’68 and became one of the first districts in the country to voluntarily integrate its elementary and middle schools by busing children of color from neighborhoods in the south and west areas of the city to schools in the overwhelmingly white north and east, and vice versa. The impact of the busing tactic here, as across the country, was mixed, and it was hard for parents to remain involved or feel that their kids were learning in culturally appropriate ways. Although the busing program was not aimed directly at Berkeley High, the new racial landscape profoundly impacted education there. That same year, educators inspired both by the national call for Afrocentric education (see Nairobi School System, p. 104), and by the intersecting struggles of the Free Speech and Ethnic Studies movements underway at the college level, founded African American studies at Berkeley High. The school was already racially integrated, but it lacked an inclusive curriculum, and educators sought to give Berkeley’s students a sense of racial equity that busing could not address. This was part of a wave of new Black studies and African American economics curricula at Bay Area institutions, from grade schools to universities.

At its height, Berkeley High’s program offered courses in African American literature and history, the Black Social Experience (later to be called Black Male-Female Relations), Black Psychology, African American Economics, and African-Haitian Dance. Students took Kiswahili language courses, and enrolled in a youth empowerment class called Black Soul, Black Gold, Black Dynamite. The program produced its own newspaper, Ujama. Inspired by this legacy, in the early 1990s students successfully pushed to expand this programming to include Chicano and Asian American studies courses. Implementation of this programming, however, has always been contested by more conservative residents and administrators, in what the Reverend Robert McKnight, former teacher and chair of African American studies, has described as a “perpetual struggle” to maintain the programming.

The social and racial justice activism of the student body has remained a corner- stone of the school’s identity. In 2000, a group of immigrant students—primarily South Asian girls—formed a group called Cultural Unity to reflect the diversity of the English Language Learner student body and to highlight their relative isolation within it. In the months after 9/11, harassment of Muslim and Sikh students increased, with two documented on-campus assaults on Cultural Unity members. In response, South Asian students wrote and published a short book of stories and poetry for use in the school’s curriculum. They also organized free legal clinics for the local Muslim com- munity and organized “Unity Assemblies” that emphasized cultural performance and cross-cultural political dialogue. The legacy of diversity and struggle at Berkeley High is commemorated in visible ways. One can begin by visiting the utility boxes along the perimeter of the high school, illustrated by the Arts and Humanities Academy Class
of 2012, which depict some of the school’s famed activist alumni, including Black Panther Bobby Seale, writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Chinaka Hodge, as well as musicians Phil Lesh and Joshua Redman. (Section authored by Diana Negrín da Silva)

Black Cultural Zone
2277 International Boulevard, Oakland 94606

In the mid-2010s, the artists and activists connected to the nonprofit East Side Arts Alliance began work on establishing Black Cultural Zones (BCZ), conceived as a series of “safe Black spaces” at points served by new transit lines along International Boulevard, as well as the MacArthur and Bancroft neighborhoods. This effort was a response to the ongoing outmigration of Black people from Oakland. The International Boulevard corridor is the commercial and cultural heart of the racially and ethnically heterogeneous neighborhoods of East Oakland, stretching from Lake Merritt to the southern border of Oakland (the street continues, under other names, through several cities). More broadly, East Oakland, often overshadowed by the dynamics of downtown and West Oakland, has become known for creative approaches to urban change, including a much-lauded program of transit-oriented development that specifically guarded against displacement around the Fruitvale BART station. The Black Cultural Zone is another such effort, an example of proactive grassroots planning to prevent further displacement of residents and what are now commonly known as “legacy businesses.”

The effort grew out of cultural work that dates back to 2000, when four arts organizations in this area organized the first Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, an annual May event in San Antonio Park (1701 E. 19th Street), featuring local and visiting musicians alongside graffiti battles, dance performances, and booths representing local crafts and community organizations. The East Side Arts Alliance (ESAA, 2277 International Blvd.) was born from that first festival, positioning itself as a voice in local politics, advocating for “development without displacement” in city government meetings, and securing properties in East Oakland through nonprofit and grassroots partnerships. The organization bought its own building, offering a counterpoint to gentrification in the area by incorporating affordable housing into its art-and-politics organizational structure. When the city developed a new bus rapid transit route along International Boulevard, ESAA secured foundation grants and city support to help align the transit corridor with the values and experiences of longtime residents. Building on these efforts, the Black Cultural Zone project envisions a shift in Oakland’s land use that highlights the economic and cultural resources of long- time residents as a platform for equitable development. Working with neighborhood partners, the BCZ will be integrated into new public plazas that will partner with existing businesses, nonprofits, and religious institutions as well as new mixed-use developments with below-market housing. At this writing, the large historic building that once served as the headquarters for Safeway, at the intersection of International Boulevard and 57th Avenue, had been proposed as the BCZ’s geographic hub. (Section authored by Diana Negrín da Silva)

“Black Panther Park” (Dover Park)
Dover Street, between 57th and 58th Streets, Oakland 94609

Tucked behind the former Merritt College site on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, this is one of many places associated with the creation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1966. BPP founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton lived and studied together in this neighborhood before forging, with many others, the vision for Black liberation codified in the party’s Ten Point Program. Their political message, a response to the conditions of this neighborhood and others like it at the time, spoke of transforming power relations with the police, uplifting Black people, and providing for the basic needs of everyday Oaklanders.

Serving as a framework for the party as it expanded from its Oakland roots, the program articulated a set of baseline beliefs that shaped the politics of the organization while inspiring others around the world. “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community,” they wrote. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Under this banner, they created free breakfast programs for kids, and international solidarity with other working-class people, across racial lines. The community college where they polished these ideas, and where they anchored some of their early community- organizing efforts, was relocated in 1960; the building on that site is now a senior center.

By the fiftieth anniversary of the BPP’s founding in 2016, things had changed significantly in the Bushrod, which is one of a few names for the neighborhood surrounding Dover Park. By then the real estate website Redfin had labeled it the hottest neighbor- hood for housing sales in the country. This shift in the neighborhood’s fortunes came not long after officials created a gang-injunction zone in the area, which Restorative Justice (RJ) activists used to show the connections between policing and real estate speculation. They showed, for example, that the decreased visibility of young men of color on local streets and the increased police presence (both of which were produced by the gang injunction) fed into the intensified marketing of the neighborhood as “safe” to new home buyers.

Traces of the political history of the area remain in the landscape, and Dover Park continues to maintain and reinvigorate the message of Black Panther activism. Since 2010, Dover Park has served as host to the Phat Beets food justice collective, which merges urban agriculture with social justice organizing, maintaining an edible public garden here. The garden circles the park with fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and native plants, labeled to serve as tools of beautification, education, and public engagement. The food grown here has at times gone to support Aunti Frances’s Love Mission Self Help Hunger Program, a local group that cooks free meals in nearby Driver Plaza at the intersection of Adeline, Stanford, and 61st Streets. Aunti Frances’s program is one of many organizations around Oakland that was explicitly inspired by the BPP’s call for self-help on a community scale. Frances has said that she learned the value of community care and organizing as a child, when she personally benefited from the BPP’s free breakfast programs.

Black.Seed Demonstration, one expression of #BlackLives Matter
San Francisco Bay Bridge, just east of Yerba Buena Island
210 Burma Road, Oakland 94607
(This is the parking lot with closest access to the bike/walk trail on the bridge.)

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016, west- bound traffic on the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge came to a halt. Activists— chained together to block the road—raised their fists and displayed a banner declaring “Black Health Matters.” To see this site, you should not stop in a vehicle on the car lanes of the Bay Bridge. But you can get close to it via the bike and pedestrian path that runs from Oakland’s industrial waterfront along the bridge to Yerba Buena Island. You may want to bike, bus, or drive all the way onto the island, where you can look back at the eastern span of the bridge from Forest Road. From there you can get a sense of the impact that a takeover of the bridge would have, with all six westbound lanes blocked in the middle of the afternoon.

The 2016 demonstration was led largely by gender-queer African American activists and their allies affiliated with Black.Seed, one of many groups that formed in the first few years of the Black Lives Matter movement. The group coordinated their entry to the bridge through the East Bay car toll- gates. Once they stopped, they chained their bodies to each other through the cars to create a true barrier across every lane. Posing with their sign about Black health, they sought media attention to shift the public dialogue.

The name of the larger struggle—Black Lives Matter—was born from a social media post coauthored by Bay Area activist Alicia Garza, who cofounded that movement in 2013 in the wake of the acquittal of the killer of young Trayvon Martin in Florida. Soon after, transit and transportation disruptions across the nation sought to draw public attention to the problems of overpolicing, mass incarceration, police killings, and health disparities in the Black community. Drawing from the civil rights playbook, activists employed the strategy of reaching the public as they engaged in everyday activities; with their urgent message about the value of African American life, activists blocked highways from Minnesota to Dallas. In Oakland a shutdown of the West Oakland BART station in 2014 stymied trans-bay trains for four and a half hours to remind the public of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, after which police left Brown’s corpse on the street for more than four hours. Others took speeches and poetry on Sundays to restaurants around the bay in predominantly white neighborhoods as part of a “Black Brunch” action.

The Black.Seed bridge takeover brought together many of these concerns. The group issued a set of demands, including “the immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco.” They also called for the firing of officers involved in police killings locally—including that of Mario Woods, Richard Perkins, Yuvette Henderson, Amilcar Lopez, Alex Nieto, Demouriah Hogg, Richard Linyard, and O’Shaine Evans—and for the resignation of mayors and police chiefs who failed to hold officers accountable for shooting residents. They weren’t the only ones calling for this, and San Francisco’s police chief resigned under pressure a few months later.

While you’re here, we’ll note that the views on this four-and-a-half-mile bridge are incredible, but they come at significant financial and social cost. The state rebuilt the eastern span of the bridge in the 2010s to replace a 1936 structure that had been a source of concern since its dramatic partial collapse during the 1989 Loma Prieta earth- quake. Completed in 2015, the eastern span went far over budget, costing $6.5 billion to date. The new span has its own structural problems, however, and more spending has been required for repairs and adjustments to ensure the stability of the span when we face the next big earthquake.

Frances Albrier Community Center
2800 Park Street, Berkeley 94702

San Pablo Park’s Community Center commemorates the life of African American activist Frances Albrier as part of the long and rich history of cross-class multi-ethnic culture, community, and social struggle in South Berkeley. Albrier’s life story sheds light on the character of her neighbors, who fostered a strong sense of community that was often forged in the sports fields of San Pablo Park.

A flyer from 1940 outlines the goals of an anti-discrimination campaign: “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.” (Below Right) Frances Albrier photographed in a successful 1940 demonstration against workplace discrimination in South Berkeley (Presley Winfield photos)

Born in 1898, Albrier grew up in Alabama with her grandmother, a former enslaved woman and midwife who cared deeply about education. Albrier’s grandmother was a founding supporter of the Tuskegee Institute, the prominent Black school where Frances studied before joining her father in Berkeley in 1920. She received further training as a nurse, married, and settled into a house nearby at 1621 Oregon Street to raise her three children. Racial discrimination prevented Albrier from securing work as a nurse, but she later found employment with the Pullman train company and became active in a labor union. Having been refused a job as a welder at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond (although she had twice the hours of training needed), Albrier leveraged her knowledge of a new federal anti-discrimination law to pressure Kaiser. She won and began work as the first Black woman welder in 1942. Her persistence helped pave the way for thousands of African American and women workers to get better-paying jobs in the shipyards (see Rosie the Riveter Monument and National Park, p. 65).

Outside of her own workplaces, Albrier engaged in a series of campaigns to challenge discrimination and social injustice. She organized a women’s club that pressured the Berkeley schools to hire the first Black teacher at nearby Longfellow School. She initiated a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work Campaign” at Sacramento and Ashby—just a few blocks from San Pablo Park—that pushed local shopkeepers to hire Black employees. She was the first African American to run for Berkeley City Council in 1939. She didn’t win, but she went on to hold prominent positions in the local and statewide Democratic Party and served on Berkeley’s Model Cities program, which brought federal community-development dollars to South Berkeley.

Albrier was a powerful person and leader, but she was also a product of a remarkable community. Byron Rumford lived nearby at Acton and Russell. His Sacramento Street pharmacy became a neighborhood institution, and in 1948 Rumford became Northern California’s first Black elected official when he won a seat in the state assembly through

the work of an alliance of African Americans, progressive labor unions, and liberals of all ethnicities. He leveraged these coalitions to pass landmark state legislation for fair employment in 1959 and fair housing in 1963. A statue of Rumford by sculptor Dana King stands in the median on Sacramento Avenue, near his former pharmacy.

Berkeley’s Japanese American community was centered just east of this area in a thriving community with dozens of organizations, churches, and cultural groups. During WWII the federal government incarcerated more than thirteen hundred Japanese American Berkeley residents. Under Albrier’s and Rumford’s leadership, Berkeley’s Interracial Committee protested war- time treatment of Japanese Americans, and some entrusted the deeds to their homes to Albrier while they lived behind barbed wire. (Section authored by Donna Graves)

Marcus Books
3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland 94609

The East Bay offers a strong counter to the notion that the age of independent booksellers is over. Between Oakland and Berkeley alone, an array of independently owned and operated stores and small local chains serve niche audiences and the broader community alike. Marcus Books holds a special place on this list as the oldest continuously operating Black-owned and operated bookstore in the United States. Marcus was founded in 1960 by Julian and Raye Richardson as the Success Book Company in San Francisco. The institution was part of a wave of Black book- stores that opened in the 1960s and 1970s, offering access to books by and about people of the African diaspora, including information absent or scarce in other bookstores, public libraries, and schools. The spread of books by W.E.B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, Frantz Fanon, and many others provided intellectual foundations for transformations in Black community consciousness.

The Richardsons opened the original Success Book Company in the front of their independent San Francisco printing shop, where they published writers who were shut out of the white-dominated publishing industry or whose work was difficult to find. Julian Richardson published Marcus Garvey’s Philosophy and Opinions in 1966 after discovering that it had been out of print for forty years. He also printed two influential literary magazines of the Black Arts movement, Black Dialogue and the Journal of Black Poetry, and published a number of books of poetry under his own imprint. The bookstore–print shop was a hub for Black artistic and cultural activity in San Francisco, hosting events and political meetings, playing an active role in local political struggles.


The outer wall of Marcus Books, painted with titles by Zora Neale Hurston, Carter Woodson, Elaine Brown, and others. Malcolm X (left) and Marcus Garvey (right) stand watch. Mural coordinated by Community Rejuvenation Project (photo courtesy of Bruce Rinehart)

In 1970 the Richardsons opened a second location in Berkeley and changed the name to Marcus Books, after Garvey. The East Bay expansion allowed Marcus Books to conduct business with schools and other large institutions in Alameda County, such as prisons and social service facilities, according to a 1978 interview with Julian Richardson. They moved the East Bay store from Berkeley to its current site in Oakland in 1976. The new location was around the corner from the recently opened MacArthur BART station and close to the first storefront location of the East Bay Negro Historical Society (the earliest predecessor of the African American Museum and Library of Oakland). This new location was central to political activity in the neighborhoods of North and West Oakland as well as downtown.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco location moved to the heart of the Fillmore district in 1980, to Victorian Square, a small cluster of buildings that had been rescued from the redevelopment bulldozers some years earlier. In 2014, after a long community struggle to save it, the San Francisco location at 1712 Fillmore shuttered. The Oakland location remains and stocks a catalog of Black books in all genres and hosts events on-site and in partnership with other organizations. Even amid the Black outmigration of the 1990s and 2000s that has changed Oakland’s demography dramatically, and after financial troubles that plagued the store for some time, Marcus Books remains rooted here on MLK Way. (Section authored by Simon Abramowitsch)

Notes: Excerpt taken from A People’s Guide to the SF Bay Area (UC Press, 2020)

Authorship
The majority of this book is written by Rachel Brahinsky, Alexander Tarr, or the two of us together. Our individual and collective work has no additional byline. We are honored to also include the contributions of a wonderful group of Bay Area geographers, researchers, and public historians. Their names are noted at the end of any site entry that they authored or contributed to, with the caveat that we have edited the whole book for consistency.

© 2020 by Rachel Brahinsky and Alexander Tarr; used with permission by University of California Press. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Postcards Series

160 Miles East of Los Angeles: On Covering the Eastern Coachella Valley

Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

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


Ruxandra Guidi

There’s this hill, a perfectly-sloped green hill, that rises above the Pomona Freeway on your left as you cross the 605 and drive west into Los Angeles. Young trees stand equidistant from one another — clearly planned and planted not long ago. Between them, snaking their way from street level all the way up to the top mesa, green plastic tubes about 2 feet in diameter rise above the ground, transporting the methane gas produced by the slowly decomposing trash that lives inside the belly of the mountain.

As the population of LA County has expanded over the last 50 years, so has the hill. About a decade ago, an average 12,000 tons of trash arrived daily (that’s the equivalent of about 200 adult elephants, to give you an idea) atop these huge dump trucks. The non-recyclable waste would then get flattened out by the dump truck’s equally huge wheels. I had a photo taken next to one of them just so I could remember their size: A bright yellow safety helmet sits awkwardly atop my head; behind me, one of the truck’s tires rises to twice my size.

“All waste facilities have great views,” told me one of the landfill’s workers back in 2010 when I visited Puente Hills. He pointed down to cookie-cutter housing developments, a few pockets of green, orderly suburban streets where cars could be seen shuttling in all directions and at different speeds.

But a mountain of trash is still trash, no matter how many trees may be covering it up, no matter how pretty the sight. And this perfectly sloped mountain of trash was getting to be just too big for Los Angeles. The Puente Hills landfill would have to close down, and the trash would need to be shipped elsewhere.

***

Early one summer, a little over a decade ago, my editor sent me to a town about 160 miles east of Los Angeles. My assignment was to spend a couple of days trying to understand why there had been a history of illegal dumping in these parts and why the Los Angeles County Sanitation District had considered the Imperial Valley desert close to the U.S.-Mexico border a future disposal site.

I took Interstate 8 east of San Diego, towards the Jacumba Mountains’ huge, round boulders, past a Border Patrol checkpoint, and the curve in the road that brought me just a mile away from the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Then, less than two hours into my ride past another rocky mountain range, the plain opened up in front of me just as the sun was coming up. I could see just two layers in the landscape ahead — the Imperial Valley’s sandy light brown and a blue sky — that resembled a Mark Rothko painting.

The closer I got to my destination, the more green mixed into the landscape. This is the Eastern Coachella desert but still it is known for its agricultural production 300 days of the year; one only made possible by an informal migrant workforce and intense irrigation. Eighty-eight percent of cropland here is artificially irrigated with water from the All-American Canal.

Seasonal farm workers can be seen dotting the fields and picking produce almost yearround, even when temperatures reach 110 degrees. By the time I showed up to the unincorporated community of Thermal mid-morning, the air was dry and warm. Eduardo Guevara, a gentle, stocky guy with a closely cropped dark mustache and beard, waited for me by the side of the road.

I first heard about Lawson Dump when I became obsessed with Los Angeles’ massive output of trash and wondered where it ends up. It turned out some of the county’s construction debris and hazardous waste was illegally ending up here, a 50-foot-high dump that would be set on fire regularly. Next to it was Duroville, a trailer park infamous for its poor living conditions and bad air quality. Without paved roads and garbage pick-up, Duroville was a sad indictment of the daily reality of too many California farmworkers. And it was overcrowded—at one point, up to 4,000 people lived on the 40-acre site.

 Activist Eduardo Guevara takes a picture inside Lawson Dump as smoke rises from a fire smoldering below ground. Although it was ordered closed in 2006, underground fires continued to burn for years afterward, and residents of nearby mobile home parks continued to complain about noxious odors and possible contamination. (2012)

Meanwhile, Duroville residents had no idea of the possible risks of living next to a smoldering dump. “This is where nearby farms disposed of grape stakes covered in pesticides; where people discarded their old cell phones and computers,” Eduardo told me as we walked around the edge of the dump. “We knew people burned trash here, but we didn’t know it was that bad.”

Even before coming to Thermal, I’d become both fascinated and repelled by this place: Here was the largest toxic dump in California located a short drive east from the gated communities and irrigated golf courses of Palm Springs and the site of the Coachella music festival. It was a symbol of the great disparities you’d find in the state: of the migrant farmworker as a dispensable asset, of the desert landscape as a literal wasteland.

We spent much of that day exploring the four unincorporated rural towns of the Eastern Coachella Valley that border the Salton Sea: Thermal, Mecca, Oasis and North Shore. Eduardo told me he’d managed to get his family out of a trailer but his wife still suffered from the severe asthma she acquired during their time in Duroville. He’d begged county officials to do something about poor quality housing, pesticide drift, hazardous waste and water contamination, but nothing came of it.

“Maybe researchers couldn’t link the asthma directly to the dumps, but it’s a big coincidence for a community that has been living next to a burning, open-air dump for years, don’t you think?” he said, as we stood atop one of the mounds that made up Lawson Dump. I listened to him intently, thinking I’d also need to get a response from public officials, check the record, do my research, be objective. My story, I genuinely thought, would capture the injustices of this place. It would take me some time — years, really — to be able to identify the lessons that this part of the desert held for me.

I kept coming back, driving the two-and-a-half to three hours from the city. By 2014, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District decided to indefinitely postpone its “waste-by-rail” plans of moving LA’s trash to this part of the state and Lawson Dump was ordered shut by a court. More often than not, I came alone and without an assignment, struggling to make a case to my editor that one or two stories couldn’t possibly capture the complexity of what I was seeing or what it all meant.

***

I met Griselda Barrera at a middle school auditorium in Thermal, moments after she offered her public comment about air quality to a panel of state regulators. With her long, black hair, straight talk and black platform pumps, Griselda demanded attention. But the public officials facing her, all of them men, avoided her gaze.

“I’m tired of the agencies that come here asking us to bring people from the community as an audience for their presentations,” she said out loud in Spanish. “We have no idea what they do with the information we give them. Nothing changes.”

Fifteen years ago, Griselda told me, she and her family came from Mexico and moved into Duroville. They, of course, hated it. She and her husband got a seasonal job picking grapes and chiles, averaging only $15,000 per year.

Low wages in the fields define this corner of California: They are the reason why a majority of workers endure substandard living conditions in mobile home parks, and why at the height of harvesting season, four men will share a single room for months, or worse yet, live out of their cars. Income inequality is why migrant populations typically are forced to face extreme levels of environmental hazards and also why migrants’ health disparities are so persistently widespread. In 2010, there was only one primary care physician per every 8,400 residents in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Local clinics report higher rates of diabetes and asthma, particularly among young children, coupled with a 30 percent uninsured rate among patients.

“I’m taking you to the new Duroville,” Griselda promised me the day we met, explaining how after the old dump and trailer park had been ordered shut down, the county created a new $28 million public-private mobile home development in its stead. I’d be able to meet Griselda’s youngest son who’d dropped out of college and now worked in a fast food joint, and her eldest, who had just welcomed a baby with his young wife from El Salvador who had also spent her first few years in America living in (but plotting her exit out of) Duroville.

“But you should think about a way to pay people for their time,” Griselda said, coyly, as we made plans to meet again. I tried to explain to her that it was unethical for journalists to pay for interviews. Then, for weeks, I waited for Griselda to reply to my messages.

Photo Courtesy of Roberto (Bear) Guerra. A hand-written sign warns Duroville mobile home park residents in Thermal, California, to stay away from a waste pond on the neighboring property. On the far side of the pond is Lawson Dump, now closed by the EPA because it contained dangerous amounts of arsenic, PCBs, asbestos, dioxin and other toxic materials. (2012).

***

I was once a middle-class kid growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, a big city flanked by mountains and less than an hour’s drive from the Caribbean Sea; an urban setting not unlike Los Angeles, located far away from where my food was grown and where my trash was disposed of.

The tropics’ tall, flowering trees, and seasonal monsoon rains defined my view of nature. When my family visited the desert dunes in Coro, 300 miles west of Caracas, we jokingly called it “a beach without water;” a habitat for scorpions and snakes. I never thought I’d one day come to love the Eastern Coachella desert and the Sonoran Desert, my home of the past two years, with its stalwart and adaptable biodiversity despite high summer temperatures and a lack of water.

Once in the U.S., I would become an outsider: Spanish-speaking, but not from Mexico. Nostalgic, but increasingly independent and distant from my own family’s traditions. I learned to survive winters.

The deeper I got into the legacies of Duroville and Lawson Dump, the more I learned about the life and work and dreams of migrant farmworkers, the harder it became to sort out whether I was being a well-meaning witness to injustice or someone exploiting the details of others’ suffering for my own sake. It turns out that like most journalists, I could be both.

Like a privileged Western foreign correspondent parachuted into a conflict area in the developing world, I was routinely asked to make sense of a history I did not feel or know. Yet for years, I’d functioned under the assumption that as a journalist, my craft was the only thing I needed to show loyalty to. My stories, I naively thought, would shed light on the injustices faced by people, creating a shift in public opinion, and eventually, tangible change.

It would take me another decade to see the shortsightedness of this promise — mainly, that I could efficiently yet deeply understand and share stories about “other” people and places, without getting to truly understand myself first. Neither my class consciousness nor my native Spanish-speaking could make up for the easy characterization of other people’s lives, for the way their stories could be perceived by others, how they could contribute to the already-existing stereotypes about migrants, desert-dwellers, immigrants, farm workers, activists.

I needed to sort out my duty to the people who trust me with their lives and feelings, and figure out that in the end, these stories I’m drawn to, past and present, are also about myself: They are stories about home or the search for it. Stories about dignity and justice. More often than not, the narratives I care to help tell the most, the ones that keep me up at night, and give me a sense of purpose, are about individuals and communities who have a sense of hope about their futures.

In getting to know the desert —its vastness and possibility— I have learned to slow down my experiences to see what happens when I give myself one month or two or a year to tell a story, instead of one day or one week. Sometimes, the stories never get told and instead, I befriend the people I interview. Other times, these stories morph into life lessons instead or into yet more stories, or rather, snippets that make their way into my dreams. The places I write about become fixations, and I keep returning, as if hitting the rewind button to replay the scenes of a movie that hold some personal meaning that I cannot yet decipher.

This past November, I paid my latest visit to Thermal. Eduardo and Griselda are no longer living nearby, but the last time we spoke, they’d both told me how proud they were of the roles each of them played in the clean up of the old Lawson Dump site. The hill is still there. It rises above street level but the waste is now hidden beneath thick layers of dirt. Next door, where Duroville’s trailers once peppered the landscape, there is nothing but flat open land. Beyond, on either side, I could see a patchwork of fields of lettuce and other greens being harvested by men and women hunched forward, donning big hats, dreaming their dreams of home here in the desert, or elsewhere.

Ruxandra Guidi is a native of Caracas, Venezuela. She has been working in public radio, magazines, and podcasts for twenty years across the US, Latin America, and the US-Mexico border region. She’s an assistant professor of practice at the University of Arizona School of Journalism and a contributing editor to High Country News magazine. She collaborates regularly with her partner Bear Guerra under the name Fonografia Collective.

Postcard Series

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots” 
  6. Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
  7. Nicolas Belardes, “South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains”
  8. Ruth Nolan, “Cima Dome, East Mojave National Preserve”
  9. Marco Vera, “My Tata’s Frutería”

Reviews

South Central is Home: Race and the Power of Community Investment in Los Angeles

Claudia Sandoval

What makes a space a home? While we often think of it as the site for the nuclear family, home is also the space that communities create. In this sense, cities and neighborhoods evolve in much the same way as singular households. Individuals make a community their own by ensuring that the area reflects the needs and identity of its residents. Yet, as gentrification grows throughout many U.S. cities, marginalized communities are being stripped of the very essence that made these spaces home to its members. The anger over the loss of these spaces takes many people by surprise, even as others view the transition of their communities as a marker of progress. However, one loses the rich history of how these cities and spaces became home to millions of individuals in the face of structural divestment, disinterest, and overall erasure.

Through a historical analysis, Abigail Rosas discusses the ways in which a marginalized community, like South Central, California, became home to the thousands of Black and Latinx residents that have migrated to California since the 1960s. It is a beautifully written narrative of the work that Black and Latinx residents put into a community to make it their home. And it is ultimately a plea against gentrification’s displacement of Black and Brown bodies.

To contextualize and ground the project, one has to remember that the United States is quickly becoming a minority-majority nation. Most research continues to focus on the white population as representative of the average American, while rendering the life and experiences of other groups as marginal. According to a 2015 Census report, more than half of the U.S. population is projected to belong to a minority group by 2060, with Black and non-Black Latinx groups accounting for almost 43% of the population.[1] This is precisely why research that focuses on Black and Latinx communities is not simply a one-off project, but instead represents the future of the United States and is the reason why the importance of South Central is Home extends well beyond the borders of California.       

Rosas shapes her historical analysis by grounding the discussion around ideas of place-making, community-building, and race relations in South Central, Los Angeles (or South L.A., as it is now known). From beginning to end, the book eloquently narrates the ways in which African Americans began their place-making journey to South L.A. in the 1960s, against a backdrop of systemic racial oppression and racial covenants that segregated Black communities. In their journey from the U.S. South, Black residents migrated to the Southwest with the hope of starting anew, in a community whose history was not bogged down with the burdens of slavery.

Mexican and Central American immigrants began moving into the predominantly Black South Central neighborhood in the 1980s. Many of these immigrants left for economic and/or political motives in search of a more decent life. However, like African Americans, Central American and Mexican immigrants were relegated to the same “forgotten places” of the city.[2] Rosas contextualizes the environment in which Black and Latin American peoples would come to make South Central their home. More importantly, it provides the historical background in which these residents came together to advocate for their own community and well-being, often against the interests of powerful government entities. As Rosas puts it, “South Central African American and Latina/o residents advocate for investment and care for the community, but an investment that would not leave them behind.” It is through this collaboration that Rosas identifies the power of relational community formation.

Photo Courtesy of Abigal Rosas
Mural By: Imelda Carrasco, Edwin Cuatiacuatl, Tevin Brown, Florinda Pascual, Karen Vega, Antonia Rivera, Brayana Harris, Jasmonz Bron, Raul Lopez, Fransico Aquila, Alex Truatisky, Jennifer Roman, Manny Velazquez

The seven chapters in this book can be broken down into three important categories: place-making, investment, and race relations. Impressively, Rosas situates the historical realities of Black and Latina/o/x residents in South Central. Within these historical accounts, Rosas intertwines the ways in which systems of oppression and racialization created the conditions in which these residents were required to maintain and preserve a community that would serve the needs of its members. Even when it comes to government investment initiatives like the Head Start program and healthcare clinics, it was the community members themselves that had to work together to make the programs fit the needs of the people in South Central.

In the chapters dedicated to Head Start and healthcare clinics, Rosas effectively captures how the programs were first rolled out, the difficulties encountered, and the way in which Black and Latina/o/x folks worked together to make both institutions a success. Interestingly, while both the Head Start program and Drew King Hospital were funded through important government initiatives, both instances of investment were often used to racialize the community through the insidious narrative of a culture of poverty. By interacting with and attempting to shape these spaces Black and Latinx residents were forced to interact with each other.


Photo Courtesy of Abigal Rosas
Mural by Xolotl Kristy Sandoval Joseph Dias

While Rosas demonstrates the power that Black and Latinx communities have when they work together, she also brings up two important points that are not fleshed out in their entirety: the erasure of the Latinx community and negative race relations. As she notes on many occasions, the increased immigrant presence in South Los Angeles has done little to “erode the African American identity and character the people readily associate with the area.”[3] Rosas worries that the Latino and Latinx presence will be erased from the popular image of South L.A.. While I do not think Rosas suggests that the Latino and Latinx experience is more precarious than the Black experience, Rosas could have spent more time explaining the persistent association of South L.A. with African Americans. In other words, thinking about the ways in which understanding South L.A. as a Black community, even if demographic numbers tell us otherwise, is also about the importance of place-making for a community whose history in the United States is founded on the erasure of its people. Rosas’ focus on the positive aspects of Black-Latinx relations is noteworthy. However, understanding why they do not always get along is just as important as highlighting when they do.

Photo Courtesy of Abigal Rosas
Mural by Xolotl Kristy Sandoval Joseph Dias

South Central is Home will be of interest to sociologists, political scientists, historians, and ethnic studies scholars, among others. As a book that centers race relations in communities of color, this book would be especially useful for undergraduate and graduate students, community organizers, and even political leaders. For young scholars, it provides a model for writing about communities that formed us, communities that we unapologetically love. Many traditional scholars continue to view scholarship that center ones community or family as “me-search”. This critique of course is rarely made of white scholars researching white communities. Lastly, by disentangling the rich history of South Central, Rosas shows us the future of cities across the United States.

Claudia Sandoval is a professor in the Political Science department at Loyola Marymount University where she teaches courses on Race, Immigration, and Black/Latina/o relations. Professor Sandoval is a first-generation Mexican immigrant who grew up in Inglewood, California. Sandoval received her B.A. in political science from UCLA in 2006. She graduated from the University of Chicago with both her master’s and doctorate in political science in 2014.


[1] Colby, Sandra L. and Jennifer M. Ortman.  “Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2016. Accessed January 29, 2020.            https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p25-1143.pdf

[2] Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning”. In Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles R. Hale, 31-61. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 2008.

[3] Rosas, Abigail. South Central is Home: Race and the Power of Community Investment in Los   Angeles. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Articles

Organized Labor, Organized Home: Domestic Worker Organizing and the Contradictory Politics of Care in the Nonprofit Industrial Complex

Erika Grajeda and Erica Kohl-Arenas

There is a growing concern with the relationship between private philanthropy and nonprofit regional organizing and development efforts to address economic inequality and racial injustice. As shown in the groundbreaking book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex (INCITE! 2007) and a growing body of ethnographic and historical research,[1] private philanthropy has influenced patterns of nonprofit professionalization and introduced individualistic and racialized market logics that limit and contain grassroots efforts to address structural inequality. Unlike the also important journalistic and philosophical texts on the power of philanthropy that tend towards broad claims about foundations and the wealthy elite[2], this body of empirical research grounds philanthropy in the power-laden relationships between funders, transnational actors, nonprofit institutions and staff, and local communities – echoing long standing concerns of nonprofit practitioners and movement leaders.[3]

Recently, development and philanthropy scholars critique the “philanthrocapitalist” turn where charitable institutions seek new profits through private-sector investments in major social policy arenas including global health, agriculture, education, workforce development, and disaster relief that create new markets of wealth production that in turn produce or maintain inequality.[4] A striking example of the philanthrocapitalist model provides a challenge to recent claims that philanthropic efforts in post-Katrina New Orleans represent a new model for social justice giving.[5] Vincanne Adams’ book Markets of Sorrow and John Arena’s book Driven from New Orleans provide detailed accounts of how, instead of delivering justice to displaced residents, philanthropic partnerships in post-Katrina New Orleans paved the way for private housing development and new debt structures that generated profit for private industry while making it extremely difficult for displaced homeowners and residents to stay or return.[6]

These trends are not new. Just as the Ford Foundation was heralded as a civil rights advocate in the 1960s, it was later critiqued for watering down the Black Power movement and the more radical wings of the United States War on Poverty community action programs.[7] In co-author Erica Kohl-Arenas’ study of funder investments in the California Farmworker Movement, the Field Foundation and the Rosenberg Foundation were valuable allies in the early days of the movement but were unwilling to fund union organizing, strikes, boycotts, or legal representation of farmworkers when the movement heated up in the fields of California’s Central Valley in the late 1960s.[8] Today, we see widespread congratulations for donors and nationally-scaled nonprofit organizations that support movements against the exploitation of poor people, women, immigrants, and communities of color. While these resources and professional forms of community organizing are desperately needed, do all strategies of nonprofit and philanthropic organizing matter equally? We propose that it is necessary, especially during times of crisis, to investigate how well-funded nonprofit organizing campaigns intersect with, sometimes support and catalyze, and yet sometimes overshadow or contain local struggles.

The case study featured in this essay shows how private and publicly funded domestic worker organizing projects that aim to empower women can weaken and redirect efforts away from building a broad-based worker and immigrant-owned movement and towards the needs of market owners. However, as we will also see in the featured case, the power of privately funded professionalized nonprofit organizing is not always represented in clear-cut capitalist agendas. Instead, professionals negotiate and adapt program strategies to align with the interests of partners with power and resources, in the end making poor people responsible for alleviating their own suffering while excluding questions of how structural inequality is produced and maintained.

The study takes on the difficult task of interrogating the risks involved in professionally organizing some of the most marginalized people in this country –undocumented immigrant women who clean homes for a living. While we believe that this organizing is urgently needed, we also found that incentivized volunteerism, required participation in national domestic worker efforts, and privately-funded media campaigns can run counter to building a strong movement of, by, and for immigrant women. Strategies to counter political, economic, and racial oppression are of utmost importance today. It is also important to pay attention to how organizing strategies that aim to also align with the interests of employers in rapidly gentrifying regions, may contain contradictions that risk compromising movements for social, economic, racial, gender, and political justice over the long haul. Central to these contradictions is the dilemma endemic to community organizing in the advanced nonprofit sector where movements that claim to embrace localized grassroots organizing, are often organized around “upward accountability” to professional staff, funding structures, and regional employers – not to the communities they aim to empower and mobilize.[9] This professionalized approach to organizing is not inherently bad. However, institutional arrangements and strategies are often disconnected from the daily struggles, critical analyses, and strategic engagement of those most impacted in the issues a movement seeks to address.

Based on the findings of co-author Erika Grajeda’s ethnographic research at an immigrant worker center in San Francisco, California, we make three specific claims about the problems presented by privately funded, nationally connected, nonprofit institutional worker organizing. First, we found that asking one of the most precarious workforces, predominantly undocumented immigrant women who clean homes, to participate in volunteer organizational maintenance activities replicates an increasingly common form of unpaid labor required of women who seek support through poverty alleviation programs throughout the global South.[10] In other words, economic opportunities extended to immigrant household workers were contingent upon unpaid nonprofit organizational care, duty, and labor. A second finding discussed in this paper involves the ways in which women participants themselves become a strategic site of intervention rather than the structural arrangements of domestic labor within the regional and national economy. Similar to transnational poverty eradication programs targeting girls/women, women workers are engaged as a malleable economic resource and investment. Finally, through public communications campaigns associated with the worker center’s funded programming, we found that by privileging employer audiences, largely imagined as middle-class Bay Area residents and tech workers, domestic workers emerged as selfless and industrious individuals while workplace challenges and regional structures of inequality experienced by domestic workers were made invisible.

In the following pages, we show how specifically gendered program frameworks, narrative tropes, and forms of nonprofit governance hold undocumented immigrant women responsible for solving problems produced by broader structures of inequality. Through privately-funded programmatic logics, they are at once told to evaluate their own self-worth based on volunteer labor and caring, and that worker organizing is about incentives, rewards, and communication campaigns alongside agreeable regional employers. We first provide a historical and geographic context for worker center organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area. The following sections share our findings around the three central themes of gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing, the project of making women responsible for their own suffering, and finally the politics of “win-win” public media narratives that aim to both empower women workers and make employers feel comfortable and charitable hiring immigrant domestic workers. We conclude by returning to the complicated question of the purpose and risks associated with critiquing one or the most important organizing agendas within a historical context of political oppression and urgency in the U.S.

The Worker Power Center

Scholars have long documented how the adversities faced by undocumented immigrants vary considerably across geographic regions in the U.S.[11] California, emerging in recent years as a champion of “immigrant rights,” has supported a host of policies intended to help undocumented immigrants.[12] Under threat of possible retaliation by the Trump administration, then Governor Jerry Brown signed landmark sanctuary state legislation vowing to protect “hardworking families” while continuing to target “dangerous criminals.” Within the state, cities such as San Francisco have upheld longstanding sanctuary policies or related law enforcement orders. Considered “as good as it gets” for undocumented immigrants, the San Francisco Bay Area is lauded as a racially heterogeneous and progressive setting that is accommodating and charitable to noncitizens.[13] This façade of tolerance and inclusivity, however, overstates the city’s ability to provide refuge and safety to undocumented populations, particularly in the post-9/11 era with the ascendancy of what some refer to as the Homeland Security State.[14] Importantly today, it also overshadows the Silicon Valley tech boom-induced housing and affordability crisis that has led to a rapid increase in homelessness and flight of working-class Black and Latino residents from the city.

Alongside these trends, a migrant civil society has flourished to deal with the crisis of social reproduction confronting low-wage, immigrant workers in the Bay Area.[15] Worker centers have been at the forefront, seeking to counter the process of labor subordination by helping immigrant workers navigate the landscape of substandard work. As “informal unions,” these mediating organizations are tasked with supporting immigrant workers through a combination of advocacy, organizing, and service provision.[16] Through their efforts to contest informal work practices, they not only aim to alter the terms of labor relations, but also create additional income-generating activities as alternatives to low-wage jobs. Worker centers are thus considered important agents for economic equity.[17] Contributing to a twenty-first century pro-labor moral economy which draws attention to the plight of low-wage immigrant workers, the nonprofit worker center model has emerged as a promising development that is reenergizing labor and immigrant social movements in the U.S.

The Worker Power Center (WPC) is a city-sponsored program that focuses on strengthening the individual well-being and collective power of low-wage immigrant workers in San Francisco. Previously part of La Raza Centro Legal, a community-based legal organization, the WPC currently falls under the fiscal sponsorship of Dolores Street Community Services, a nonprofit that was created in the 1980s to provide shelter and sanctuary to Central American refugees. With their institutional support, the WPC oversees two worker collectives, the Day Labor Program (DLP) and the Women’s Collective (WC). The DLP, which originated in the early 1990s as an outgrowth of a burgeoning immigrant rights movement across California, extended job development and social services to mostly undocumented and homeless men. The program is currently located in the historically Latino neighborhood of the Mission, near a corridor where immigrant workers have long gathered to solicit employment.[18] The worker center, in a display of converging interests of local authorities, neighborhood groups, and migrant justice activists over the growth of informal hiring sites and immigrant dispossession, emerged as a ‘win-win’ solution for the problems posed by informal day labor markets amidst rapid gentrification. Aiming to provide “support, structure, and resources” to both day laborers and their employers, it hoped to ensure a steady supply of “low cost, seasonal, [and] temporary” labor while simultaneously preserving the “dignity” of workers. Today, the worker center model is heralded as the best possible solution to the “crisis” facing many local governments over the growth of informal labor markets. [19]

In the early 2000s, the WPC created the “feminist wing” of the organization, the Women’s Collective (WC), to provide immigrant women laboring in household industries with an independent organizing space. As a standalone program with its own membership structure and decision-making procedures, the WC currently represents more than a third of the WPC membership base. In addition to extending job opportunities to a mostly Latin American, immigrant and female workforce, the WC offers members opportunities “to learn, work and participate” in local and national social movements. By providing Latina migrants with more than just “dignified employment,” the WC is a pioneer among worker centers which have traditionally been male-dominated spaces catering to industries such as construction.[20] Today, the WC is considered an incubator for immigrant household workers to hone their leadership and entrepreneurial skills, self-esteem, and political consciousness.

As founding members and leaders in the worker center movement that includes umbrella organizations such as the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON) and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), both programs share a social justice orientation intended to incite collective mobilization. At the organizational level, however, a more disjointed picture unfolds as day laborers and domestic workers, through their respective programs, are treated as two distinct populations endowed with varying levels of political agency and potential. As we will illustrate in greater detail below, day laborers and domestic workers are incorporated into the organization through different membership and participation requirements. These differences, we argue, reflect and reinforce distinct funding imperatives, political agendas, and gendered expectations. We find, for instance, that while the WC is concerned with promoting immigrant women’s civic engagement and leadership, encouraging greater visibility in migrant justice movements, the DLP prioritizes men’s labor market integration and “community embeddedness.” DLP members are encouraged to await work indoors, venturing out collectively mostly to participate in community cleanup and volunteering efforts aimed at making a positive impression on neighboring communities. Women, however, take on a more visible and political role due to their distinct participation requirements. This means that while the worker center aims to function as an “organizing hub” for WC members, inciting personal transformation and empowerment, it often serves as a day shelter for immigrant men looking to secure work through the DLP.  

Funding streams for the WC and DLP also differ. The DLP receives roughly $250,000 per fiscal year from public grants offered by the City and County of San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA). According to the 2014 OCEIA’s Request for Proposal, the purpose of such grants is to provide “structure, job training, and support” to the informal day labor industry as well as to address community concerns over safety. These grants emphasize the dual goal of providing day laborers with a “structured” work environment to ensure their economic self-sufficiency, and securing a stable supply of low cost, on-demand labor for local industries and employers. The DLP then is tasked with ensuring a reliable supply of flexible labor while promoting immigrant integration and public safety. Alternatively, the WC receives funding from private foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Benton Foundation, and the Zellerbach Family Foundation, which according to staff, is largely directed toward the “social justice” side of their operations. As an affiliate and founding member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the California Domestic Workers Coalition (CDWC), the WC receives additional funding to attend national retreats and participate in outreach and advocacy campaigns. While OCEIA grants for the day labor program emphasize economic self-sufficiency, safety, and greater oversight of informal economies, funding for the WC largely focuses on promoting civic engagement and leadership development. Both foundation funding and OCEIA grants, however, look to these community-based organizations to address the challenges experienced by and ensure the reproduction of low-wage immigrant workers in a gentrified and increasingly unaffordable city.

In 2016, the Worker Power Center celebrated its 25th anniversary with a relaunch and rebranding campaign. Envisioning itself as a full-service organization seeking to “unite, empower, and organize” low-wage immigrant workers in San Francisco, the Worker Power Center (WPC) has increasingly embraced marketplace solutions. These have included employing marketing strategies and media campaigns to create what they perceive to be a more sustainable and scalable organizational model. This new approach has also entailed expanding their employer base, particularly those in the tech industry, embracing innovative technologies such as apps to combat wage theft and expedite the hiring process, as well as experimenting with public-private partnerships. With this relaunch, the WPC seeks to enhance the individual lives of low-wage immigrant workers by providing them with greater employment prospects through professionalization and vocational training. They also seek to extend more opportunities for leadership development and civic engagement in migrant justice and labor movements.

In the remaining sections, we turn to our findings that complicate how these benefits are delivered to WPC members under the nonprofit organizational model. We highlight the three central themes of gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing, the project of making women responsible for curing their own “trauma,” and finally, the politics of “win-win” media narratives that aim to both empower members and compel employers to support immigrant workers. We conclude with a discussion about the practice of embracing nationally scaled and market-based solutions to address enduring labor challenges, particularly the extent to which privately funded nonprofit institutions are engaging workers in developing organizing strategies that hold employers and industries accountable to change.

Gendered and incentivized participation in nonprofit worker organizing

Membership in the Worker Power Center (WPC) is considered a “privilege” that is not automatic but must be earned.[21] While some worker centers offer multiple membership tiers with different levels of rights, obligations, and decision-making privileges, membership structures are generally devised with the goal of empowering members to serve as their own advocates of change.[22] At the WPC, prospective members have to fill out an application form, attend an orientation meeting, and pay monthly dues. Once established, membership extends job dispatching privileges to workers, which is one of the most important services the center provides. Although membership provides job allocation privileges to both day laborers and domestic workers, only for the latter is “active participation” a requirement for securing household employment through the Women’s Collective (WC). Day laborers, for instance, are allocated jobs using a rotating sign-in system, which requires that they be physically present at the center to be eligible for work on any given day. After every job placement, the Day Labor Program (DLP) requires that workers volunteer either by cleaning the facilities or distributing flyers throughout the city advertising their services. While encouraged, members of the DLP are not required to attend weekly member meetings.

For domestic workers in the WC, a point system is used to codify, track, and reward optimal levels of participation. While its exact origin is not known by current staff or WC members, household workers earn the “right” to jobs through the collective by what organizers refer to as “active participation.” Through an intricate point system, WC members earn a point for every activity or event they attend on a weekly basis. These can include flyering or advertising their services throughout the city, but also attending marches, protests, self-help meetings, theater group rehearsals and performances, making legislative visits, and at times, engaging in acts of civil disobedience. Women also engage in other “volunteering” activities, including organizational maintenance work such as cleaning and cooking for members during communal events. While expected, this type of gendered community care work—often attributed to a culturally-specific ethos of cooperation and conviviality—is not accounted for or tabulated into the point system.[23] Staff acknowledge that the point system is the source of much internal conflict, resentment, and surveillance among WC members—as well as a considerable amount of administrative work on their end. Still, the point system is considered a “necessary incentive” that serves to maximize women’s participation and more importantly, to develop their political consciousness.

Job allocation, which staff describe as a referral service linking prospective employers with job seekers, is considered secondary to the organization’s larger political goals, which is to “empower” immigrant Latinas. This message is delivered to women during an initial orientation meeting where prospective members learn about the WC’s “mission and vision,” but also at weekly mandatory meetings and events. Ana, a senior member of the WC, reinforced this point to a prospective member during an orientation meeting: “One can’t just show up and take up space.” After becoming a WC member, this woman explained that she understood that to secure jobs through the collective she would “have to work hard.” As part of the WC’s mission and vision then, immigrant women were being called to “join the fight” instead of remaining on the sidelines as spectators. Josefina, a cofounder of the Women’s Collective and a former domestic worker herself, elaborated on this point at a general member meeting:

“The women who are truly committed don’t just show up to earn points. They participate because they are truly concerned with what is going on in their communities, in the legislature, in D.C. They aren’t just a warm body on a chair. It is not greed or selfishness that motivates them but the belief that as immigrant women we all have to fight for what we want . . . it is not fair that some of us put in the time and effort to attend all of these events, participate, march, protest, share our stories, talk to politicians and journalists, while others simply get to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor.”

As the above quote suggests, “active participation” entails more than being a “warm body.” To secure household jobs through the collective, members are expected to “participate, march, [and] protest.” They also have to be willing to put their bodies on the line, at times quite literally, by engaging in acts of civil disobedience, risking arrest and even deportation, in their efforts to secure employment through the collective. When members have questioned or challenged the intrinsic value of participation, they are reminded that membership is a “privilege” and that the benefits extended include the “opportunity” to be part of a social movement in the U.S. As Victoria, a WC committee noted, members are often reminded that the opportunity to participate and acquire valuable leadership skills should be payment enough. However, as Victoria retorted, “We’re the ones out on the front lines,” adding that while the WC encourages women to fight for immigrant rights, members are not encouraged to apply those values internally, or to make changes to the collective’s organizational structure. Ultimately, she shares, “the compañeras give and give [and] not out of the goodness of their heart but out of necessity because they need jobs.”

Healing immigrant women

Providing members with ample opportunities to be politically engaged is part of the WC’s approach to empowerment. That is, domestic workers are incentivized to march, protest, fast, meet with public officials and in some cases, engage in contentious-style politics. Empowerment, however, also requires personal transformation. To that end, WC members are encouraged to “work on themselves” by engaging in transformative activities aimed at restoring and revitalizing their “body and soul.” These personal transformations are made possible through their incentivized participation in self-help groups, theater, retreats, and other activities that emphasize psychic and somatic healing. This emphasis on personal transformation and healing is inspired by the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) initiative program. According to this initiative, skilled organizing requires a “centered, open and connected” individual who understands not only her own trauma and healing, but also the current and historical sociopolitical context.[24] As a program that aims to build resilient grassroots leaders who can “lead with skill and love,” SOL encourages worker leaders to tackle lingering traumas and other pathologies that can generate individualist and antisocial tendencies. Left unresolved, these pathologies are seen as potentially stifling political participation and community power. As such, healing the “body and soul’” of household workers is deemed imperative for building robust social movements and grassroots organizations.

At the WC, women’s inability (or unwillingness) to be active in the local nonprofit organization and the nationally-scaled domestic worker movement is often attributed to moral and individual shortcomings. According to a WC cofounder and staff member, nonparticipation is rooted in low self-esteem, trauma and culturally-rooted pathologies that ultimately stifle collective action and create divisions within movements. Defining individuals through their assumed trauma – as victims of structural, physical and sexual violence – allows for interventions into their lives to be justified as a political obligation. Instrumentally, addressing these pathologies and lingering traumas is seen as integral for building robust social movement organizations and leaders. Here, again, is Josefina describing the collective’s “healing” mission:

“Many of the women that walk through that door are broken. They come from countries where women have no rights, no voice, and no way of providing for their children. They have been beaten, exploited, even raped, and so they come to the WC looking for someone to extend a helping hand. That is what we do here, we provide them the tools they need to reach their full potential as women, to expand their possibilities so that they can aspire to more in life than just cleaning houses, which is hard work . . . They come here broken and leave as heroínas.”

To ensure that WC members reach their “full potential” as entrepreneurs and social movement participants, the collective cannot thus merely “assist” them in securing household work. Instead, through a discourse of empowerment – borrowed from feminist thought and praxis – the WC aims to provide immigrant Latinas with the tools they need to “aspire to more in life than just cleaning houses.”[25] To cultivate empowered subjectivities, these assumed to be “broken” women must “work on themselves” by participating in self-help activities aimed at “restoring the body and soul.” This emphasis on psychic and somatic healing, borrowed from the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) initiative, receives generous financial support from the Angell Foundation, Hidden Leaf Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Alexander Soros Foundation, Oak Foundation, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, NoVo Foundation, and Seasons Fund for Social Transformation.[26] As a holistic and transformative organizing model, SOL approaches personal healing as a political necessity.

To that end, WC members and staff receive financial support to attend the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s (NDWA) Strategy, Organizing, Leadership (SOL) retreats, where domestic worker organizers and leaders learn about the importance of both personal and social transformation. By developing the concept of “transformative organizing,” the SOL initiative aims to address the human needs of household workers by promoting embodied transformations, mindfulness, and developing healing and caring responses to ensure longevity and active participation. On a weekly basis, WC members also participate in a SOL inspired self-help group, Grupo SOL, which is designed to boost members’ self-esteem and develop peer group solidarity. In Grupo SOL, intimate disclosures are not only considered integral to personal healing and transformation but also to nurturing a more empowered sense of citizenship. While these types of disclosures can be potentially liberating, connecting the personal to the political in strategic and powerful ways, many of the women interviewed expressed feeling that they are deprived of an intimate or private sphere in their quest to secure employment through the collective. This emphasis on healing and self-help thus reveals a contradictory problematic. Whereas the women are asked to reveal the true nature of their own suffering, the foundation funded and professionally run program sessions were organized around the presumption that the root of women’s struggles is a lack of confidence, self-esteem, and voice and not the broader structural challenges such as seeking a living wage, affordable housing, or safety from immigration policing. Here we see a model that again is not “bad” in and of itself: healing from trauma is important and personal empowerment pedagogy has a long-standing movement history. However, it did not “land well” or as intended by virtue of being required within the context of an incentivized participation scheme and designed and delivered by remote nonprofit professionals. For WC members, tending to their “body and soul” is yet more labor they are expected to perform for community uplift.

Win-Win Organizing: public narrative and the politics of care

Unlike day laborers, domestic workers dedicate a significant amount of time and labor to the organization and to self-help. Their distinct participation requirements and funding streams incentivize optimum levels of engagement among women, alongside a gendered improvement program aimed at healing “broken” immigrant Latinas. We argue that the way women members are differently incorporated into the organization produce highly dependable and active members that are compelled to take on multiple roles as caregivers, entrepreneurs, and activists. Emerging as the best hope for a revitalized labor and immigrant movement, these women are continually called upon to “work on themselves,” thereby redirecting the responsibility for managing social risks such as unemployment, poverty, and “illegality” on individual immigrant Latinas.[27] Domestic workers have also been central figures in recent advocacy campaigns that aim to address “injustices of recognition.”[28] As others have documented, nonprofit worker organizations such as the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance have increasingly focused on the promotion of dignity and visibility of domestic workers through positive representational modes such as storytelling and legal advocacy. These efforts seek to remedy the legal exclusion of an entire industry while also to addressing the historical devaluation of household work and its gendered and racialized workforce.

The WC has paralleled these national efforts by seeking to situate immigrant household workers within the framework of recovery and redress through media marketing campaigns. In 2012, for instance, the WC launched the Domestic Worker Safety & Dignity Project, a three-year collaboration that included UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) and Underground Advertising. With financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s national grantmaking program, New Routes to Community Health, the team designed a marketing and media campaign to promote dignity and health awareness among domestic workers and their employers. The campaign not only addressed occupational safety and health considerations associated with the reliance on toxic cleaning products. It also tackled the public devaluation of household work and its racialized workforce through storytelling strategies that emphasize pride, bravery, and respect. Their goal was twofold: to enhance household working conditions while simultaneously altering the perception of this industry from undervalued women’s work to a “respectable contribution” to the economy.

“Our name is La Colectiva. But you can call us Your Fairy Godmothers.” Images courtesy Joseph Cultice.

To promote the WC’s unique brand as a “conscientious cleaning service on a mission,” the team commissioned a photographer to shoot glamorous portrait photography that would be featured on billboards, buses, and other outdoor media in San Francisco. These images would also be featured on their website and printed on flyers to advertise their services. The messages accompanying the images of immigrant household workers referred to WC members as “angels,” “fairy godmothers,” and the “keepers” of their employers’ sanity. In mobilizing these gendered tropes, which focus on benevolence, resourcefulness, and magical qualities, the campaign not only reinforced stereotypical gendered views of domesticity and affect, but also portrayed these workers as a source of gentle reassurance for employers. That is, by presenting immigrant household workers as benign and selfless figures endowed with magical powers, these motifs glamorize marginalized women workers in subservient positions. Moreover, in depicting WC members as instrumental to their employers’ emancipation from the drudgery of household tasks, the campaign not only privileged the needs of employers but also projected an idealized image of this racialized and gendered workforce: industrious, resourceful, and most importantly, ephemeral.

“If cleanliness is next to godliness, then La Colectiva are Angels.” Images courtesy Joseph Cultice.  

In addition to glamorous photography and strategic messaging evoking the image of the self-sacrificing and magical doméstica, the campaign included an exhibit, “Profiles in Strength & Dignity”, which showcased “moving” autobiographical narratives of WC members. These curated autobiographical accounts offered potential employers “a glimpse” into the workers’ lives and the many roles they take on—as wives, mothers, domestic workers, and now, as activists fighting for “rights and representation.” “Profiles in Strength & Dignity” also reinforces the organization’s political and rehabilitative mission. Their autobiographical accounts highlight, for instance, how the WC provides recent immigrants with a ready-made community in addition to vast opportunities for political activism. For instance, Lorena, who worked as a nanny when she arrived to the U.S., contends that: “Before I came to La Colectiva, I felt like a scared little bunny rabbit—I was frightened of everything.” In these curated accounts, the WC is presented as providing Latinas with stewardship, protection, and care to ensure that they become self-sufficient, confident, and respectable. Domestic workers, portrayed as frightened and defenseless upon arriving to the collective (and the U.S.), are treated as redeemable and ripe with potential, which can be cultivated through proper guidance and care.

Featured on the collective’s website,“Profiles in Strength & Dignity” also promotes the notion of the potential “win-win” or shared prosperity for both workers and employers:

“When the women of La Colectiva pick up the broom and dustpan, they aren’t just clearing away dust—they’re clearing a path to respect and pride for domestic workers everywhere. It’s a win-win: employers get the peace of mind that comes from having a clean house, and the women get dignified work in a healthy workplace. But La Colectiva isn’t just a place to find work. It’s a community for recent immigrants, often separated from their families in a strange new environment. It’s an opportunity for civic engagement and activism towards social justice. And it’s a step towards a better life.”

As the passage suggests, what makes the WC different from its competitors—their distinct “brand”—is that they represent a “conscientious cleaning service on a mission.” Unlike for-profit agencies, the WC provides immigrant Latinas with the opportunity for empowerment through entrepreneurship and political engagement. Presenting “organized labor for an organized home” as a win-win scenario, beneficial for both workers and employers, parallels recent domestic worker organizing efforts at the national level. This is particularly the case with the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and its focus on forging strategic alliances with employers and other institutional actors. This “win-win” approach positions employers and workers on an equal footing through a presumed shared vulnerability (and prosperity), presenting their distinct goals and aspirations as perfectly compatible. It also appeals to employers’ moral sensibilities through the strategic mobilization of compelling personal narratives that renders their “conscientious cleaning service” as an “opportunity” for helping immigrant domestics to help themselves. This strategic branding constructs WC members as a worthy social investment, in their futurity as citizens, entrepreneurs, and pillars of the community. Employers, on the other hand, are viewed as conscientious consumers driven by compassion and social responsibility, without concern about the structures that generate such deep class divisions and categories of exploitable labor.

Conclusion

In this paper, we explored the central problematics presented by privately funded, regionally focused and nationally scaled, nonprofit worker organizing. First, we found that asking undocumented immigrant women to participate in volunteer organizational maintenance activities unintentionally promotes an increasingly common form of unpaid labor required of women in global poverty alleviation programs.[29] WC members were required to execute time intensive volunteer duties in exchange for jobs. In other words, economic opportunities in the domestic work economy were presented as contingent upon unpaid nonprofit organizational care and labor. In addition to institutional maintenance requirements, women were incentivized to participate in professionally orchestrated national domestic worker campaign actions, also in exchange for job referrals. This privately funded and professionally staffed institutional approach to mobilization presents a limited range of opportunities for women workers to define and lead organizing agendas on their own terms. It also puts women under additional pressure as they are asked to take a publicly visible stand which for some puts their immigration status at risk, and for others requires additional resources towards childcare and family support during hours of program participation.

Second, we showed how foundation funded program imperatives that make workers themselves the most important site of intervention fail to address the structural arrangements of domestic labor within the regional and national economy. For male participants, day labor centers function as a kind of shelter, or in the words of a staff member at a day labor center, “a homeless campsite.” [30] Considering the parallels between worker centers and non-profit poverty management institutions, these sites often serve as repositories for containing and making invisible “surplus” populations within gentrifying urban neighborhoods. As in the structural arrangement of 21st century racial capitalism, a pattern of urban “banishment” is performed as poverty programs intersect with real estate development and speculation, clearing streets to protect the view (and the opportunities) of middle class and wealthy residents concerned with urban “blight” and value.[31]

Whereas men are contained or managed within these spaces, women are disciplined as traumatized individuals in need of healing and care. When “fixed,” these once “broken” women are seen by funders, and thus by program managers, as holding great untapped potential as an entrepreneurial agent of development. Similar to transnational poverty eradication schemes targeting girls/women, women workers are engaged as a malleable economic resource. International development campaigns like #thefutureisfemale, or the Nike Foundation’s “The Girl Effect”are illustrative of gender-specific forms of holding women as responsible for unleashing new markets in the broader project of global economic development.[32] Programs designed to empower women have also become prominent in migrant justice and labor movements—at once providing critical leadership opportunities for immigrant women and re-inscribing racialized and gendered relationships of community responsibility and care.[33]

Finally, the funded public communications campaigns that claim to provide a “win-win” outcome for both workers and employers, privilege the perspectives of employers and middle-class Bay Area residents while avoiding the more challenging employment relationships domestic workers experience. The “win-win” oriented campaign, designed to both empower workers and make employers feel “safe” and “good” about hiring empowered immigrant women, ends up promoting essentialist narratives and racialized gendered tropes about the helpful, non-confrontational domestic worker who is proudly improving her own life while also improving the home life of her employer. Not unlike co-author Kohl-Arenas’ study of farmworker-grower philanthropic initiatives in California’s Central Valley “win-win” projects that aim to serve the interests of people with greatly unequal power often end up marginalizing or hiding the concerns of the weaker party.[34] An increasingly popular form of consensus politics is wielded by mass media campaigns that claim to improve the well-being of poor and marginalized communities, but often hide conflict, struggle, and the structural conditions that produce and maintain poverty and inequality. Often promising “mutual prosperity” for both worker and employer, simplified narratives of self-help and empowerment seldom put pressure on the employer or address regional patterns of inequality such as access to affordable housing and living wage jobs, presenting a limited range of organizing opportunities.

Ultimately, privately funded, institutionally managed, nationally scaled community organizing increasingly forgoes the hard work of long-haul person-to-person movement building. With program frameworks and outcomes mapped by donors, fewer resources are devoted to the daily work of convening community members to inform concrete strategies against the dominant economic structure and towards more equitable futures. Central to the contradictions presented in these stories is the specific arrangement of the advanced nonprofit sector where funders embrace the language of community organizing but are not prepared to take on the broader economic and power arrangements that make philanthropic wealth possible. Professionalized and mandated program participation, incentivized volunteerism, public-private market based partnerships, and self-help program frameworks are all familiar tropes of the advanced “Nonprofit Industrial Complex” (INCITE 2009).[35] In today’s political context, this incentivized organizing presents additional complications and risks for immigrant activists who are increasingly targeted and incarcerated.[36] At the same time, the increasing lack of trust, fear, isolation, seclusion and “hiding out” among previously active immigrant rights organizers does remind us that today all immigrant organizing tactics perhaps do matter.

We simultaneously conclude that, with organizations like the National Domestic Worker Alliance (NDWA) receiving record levels of funding from private foundations such as the Irvine Foundation, W.K. Kellogg, NoVo and Ford Foundation, and a practice of embracing nationally scaled and market based solutions to address enduring labor challenges, it is important to ask how privately funded nonprofit institutions are negotiating relationships with funders on behalf of their constituents. When do institutional negotiations and large-scale initiatives result in increased resources for labor organizing and when do they result in compromised agendas that fail to change the structures of inequality produced by industries and markets?[37] Yet, should we critique nonprofit and philanthropic efforts to support immigrant and worker rights during a time of political resurgence among right-wing, conservative, anti-state politics and white supremacist movements? Not to mention the difficulty of doing grassroots community organizing during a global pandemic, with disproportionate impacts on Black and brown communities. Our answer is yes, and no. No, there is no point in critiquing mainstream philanthropy when we need every penny and every ally to stand up against anti-immigrant hate, racism, and fear-mongering politics. On the other hand, yes, we must pay attention to the role of philanthropy in creating common-sense narratives that contribute to individualist solutions to collective structural problems. It is clear that philanthropy plays a prominent role in promoting narratives that muddy regional organizing strategies, in the end failing to reveal systems of power or align with the struggles of oppressed people.

In this context, critical philanthropy and nonprofit studies are more important than ever. Ethnographic research, such as the work featured in this article, reveals the complicated partial narratives, fragmented organizing strategies, and limited frameworks private donors present when engaging movements for economic equality and racial justice. The urgency of our moment calls for us to hold private funders and nonprofit organizers accountable to the people who increasingly struggle with political violence, economic insecurity, precarity, and banishment from social, economic, political and civic life.


Erika Denisse Grajeda is the Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Southwestern University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her research on intimate labor and immigrant social movements in the U.S. focuses on emergent forms of social control mobilized by state and non-state actors to manage illegalized migrants, and fashion idealized forms of employment and political participation. She is currently working on anarchist feminist collectives in Mexico City.

Erica Kohl-Arenas is an Associate Professor in American Studies at the University of California, Davis and the Faculty Director of Imagining America: Artists and Scholars in Public Life. She is a scholar of the radical imaginations and deferred dreams of social movements that become entangled with the politics of institutionalization and funding. This work is captured in her book The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty (University of California Press, 2016) and in a diversity of publications including Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, Social Movement Studies, Journal of Poverty, Geography Compassand HistPhil.


[1] INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds): The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the non-profit industrial complex (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007); Ming-Francis, Megan. ‘The Price of Civil Rights: Black Lives, White Funding, and Movement Capture.’ Law & Society Review Volume 53, Number 1: 275-309 (2019); Grajeda, Erika. ‘Immigrant Worker Centers, Technologies of Citizenship, and the Duty to Be Well.’ Critical Sociology Volume 45, Number 4-5: 647–666 (2018); Kathryn Moeller, The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of Development, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017); Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, ​Waste of a White Skin​: ​The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability (B​erkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2015); Erica Kohl-Arenas, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty. (Oakland, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2016); Megan Tompkins-Stange, ​Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence. (C​ambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press, 2016); Vincanne Adams, ​Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina.​ (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2013); Ananya Roy, Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development. New York: Routledge, 2010).

[2] Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. New York: Vintage Books, 2019); Robert Reich, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018)

[3] See articles addressing nonprofit/foundation power relationships in the popular blog Nonprofit AF: https://nonprofitaf.com/?s=philanthropy

[4]Linsey McGoey. No Such Thing As a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy.​ (London, New York: Verso Press, 2015); Behrooz Morvaridi, ‘Capitalist Philanthropy and Hegemonic Partnerships.’ Third World Quarterly Volume 33, Issue 7 (2012)

[5] Darren Walker, From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth. (New York, New York: Ford Foundation, 2019).

[6]Vincanne Adams, ​Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina.​ (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2013); John Arena, ​Driven from New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization. (M​inneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Pres, 2012).

[7] Karen Ferguson, Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of

Racial Liberalism, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

[8] Erica Kohl-Arenas, The Self-Help Myth: How Philanthropy Fails to Alleviate Poverty. (Oakland, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2016).

[9] James Petras,‘NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism,’ Journal of Contemporary Asia 29:

429-40 (1999)

[10] Tara Cookson, Unjust Conditions: Women’s Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer

Programs. (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2018); Kathryn Moeller, The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of

Development, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017)

[11] Monica W Varsanyi, ‘Immigration Policing Through the Backdoor: City Ordinances, The

‘Right to the City,’ and the Exclusion of Undocumented Day Laborers,’ Urban Geography 29(1): 29-52 (2008); Nicholas De Genova, ‘Migrant ‘Illegality’ and Deportability in Everyday Life,’

Annual Review of Anthropology 31(1): 419-447 (2002).

[12] Allan Colbern and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan, ‘Citizens of California: How the Golden

State Went from Worst to First on Immigrant Rights,’ New Political Science 40(2): 353-367 (2018).

[13] James Quesada, Sonya Arreola, Alex Kral, Sahar Khoury, Kurt C. Organista, and Paula Worby, ‘‘As good as it gets’: Undocumented Latino Day Laborers Negotiating Discrimination in San Francisco and Berkeley, California, USA,’ City & Society 26(1):29-50 (2014).

[14] Nicholas De Genova, ‘Migrant ‘Illegality’ and Deportability in Everyday Life,’

Annual Review of Anthropology 31(1): 419-447 (2002).

[15] Nina Martin, ‘The Crisis of Social Reproduction among Migrant Workers: Interrogating

the Role of Migrant Civil Society,’ Antipode 42(1): 127-151 (2010); Nik Theodore and Nina Martin, ‘Migrant Civil Society: New Voices in the Struggle Over Community Development,’ Journal of Urban Affairs 29(3): 269-287 (2007).

[16] Sebastien Chauvin, ‘Bounded Mobilizations: Informal Unionism and Secondary Shaming

Amongst Immigrant Temp Workers in Chicago,’ In Neoliberal Capitalism and Precarious Work, ed. Rob Lambert and Andy Herod, 72-95. Northampton: Edward Elgar (2016); Janice Fine, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, (Ithaca,

NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[17]Cesar F. Rosado Marzán, ‘Worker Centers and the Moral Economy: Disrupting through

Brokerage, Prestige, and Moral Framing,’ University of Chicago Legal Forum Vol. 2017, Article 16, (2018) https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol2017/iss1/16.

[18] James Quesada, Sonya Arreola, Alex Kral, Sahar Khoury, Kurt C. Organista, and Paula Worby, ‘‘As good as it gets’: Undocumented Latino Day Laborers Negotiating Discrimination in San Francisco and Berkeley, California, USA.’ City & Society 26(1):29-50 (2014).

[19] Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs, City and County of San Francisco, ‘Request for Proposals: San Francisco Day Labor Program,’ (2014) Available (consulted 12 May 2016) at: www.sfgov.org/oceia. ; Jill Esbenshade,‘The ‘Crisis’ over Day Labor: The Politics of Visibility and Public Space. WorkingUSA 3(6): 27-70 (2000).

[20] Ruth Milkman and Veronica Terriquez,‘‘We Are the Ones Who Are out in Front’:

Women’s Leadership in the Immigrant Rights Movement, ’ Feminist Studies 38(3): 723–52 (2012); Yolanda Alindor,. Bay Area Day Labor Programs: Services, Political Environment and

Priorities. Zellerbach Family Foundation. Available (consulted 12 June 2016) at: http://www.ca-ilg.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/collab_strategies_final_9-15-11_4.pdf.

[21] Janice Fine, Worker Centers: Organizing Communities at the Edge of the Dream, (Ithaca,

NY: Cornell University Press, 2006)

[22]  Jennifer Chun, George Lipsitz, and Young Shin, ‘Immigrant Women Workers at the Center of Social Change: Asian Immigrant Women Advocates,’ In Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age, ed. Nilda Flores Gonzalez, Anna Romina Guevara, Maura Toro-Morn, and Grace Chang, (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Pres, 2013)

[23] Paul Apostolidis,‘Day Laborers and the Refusal of Work,’ South Atlantic Quarterly 117(2): 439-448 (2018).

[24] Ito, Jennifer, Rachel Rosner, Vanessa Carter, and Manuel Pastor. Transforming Lives,

Transforming Movement Building: Lessons from the National Domestic Workers Alliance Strategy – Organizing – Leadership (SOL) Initiative. USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, 2014.. Available at: www.soltransforminglives.org

[25]  Emilie Hache, ‘La responsabilité, une technique de gouvernementalité néolibérale?’

Raisons politiques 28(4): 49–65 (2007)

[26] Ito, Jennifer, Rachel Rosner, Vanessa Carter, and Manuel Pastor. Transforming Lives,

Transforming Movement Building: Lessons from the National Domestic Workers Alliance Strategy – Organizing – Leadership (SOL) Initiative. USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, 2014.. Available at: www.soltransforminglives.org

[27] Michel Foucault, ‘Governmentality.’ In The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality,

ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller  (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991).

[28] Sujatha Fernandes, ‘Out of the Home, into the House: Narratives and Strategies in

Domestic Worker Legislative Campaigns.’ Social Text 34(3): 1-25 (2016); Sujatha Fernandes, Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling (New York:

Oxford University Press, 2017).  

[29] Tara Cookson, Unjust Conditions: Women’s Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer

Programs, ( Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2018).

[30] Purser, ‘The Dignity of Job-Seeking Men: Boundary Work among Immigrant Day

Laborers.’ Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 38(1): 117-139 (2009).

[31] Ananya Roy, ‘At the Limits of Urban Theory: racial banishment in the contemporary

city,’ Lecture at the London School of Economics Cities (February 13, 2018).

[32] Kathryn Moeller,  The Gender Effect: Capitalism, Feminism, and the Corporate Politics of

Development (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

[33] Ananya Roy, ‘Subjects of Risk: Technologies of Gender in the Making of

Millennial Modernity,’ Public Culture 24(1): 131-155 (2012).

[34]

[35] INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds): The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the non-profit industrial complex (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007)

[36] Maria Ibarra-Frayre, ‘Under the US Deportation Region, Activists are Policing Themselves,’

TruthOut (June 21, 2018)

[37] Fernandes, 2017

Poetry

Poems on Whiteness and the Attempted Coup

Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

Amy Shimshon-Santo

Shades of White

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


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

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

we brought this hell upon ourselves
it is a wrenching day

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

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

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

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

tally interrupted by violent insurrection
despite clear and insurmountable,  

concede already
the election of she and him

justice, must not fail
feast on the epiphany

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

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

Interviews

“We’re just Trying to Breathe”: An Interview with Active San Gabriel Valley

As the condition of our climate continues to deteriorate, national and state policies beholden to special interests often play an exacerbating role in worsening effects on working-class communities, especially communities of color. Lack of adequate urban planning and underfunded public projects that can improve quality of life and reduce pollution are often ignored in the larger conversations around climate justice. Dedicated public servant David Diaz is the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He joins Boom California to discuss the connections between public policy and environmental equality, and how we can take an active role in combating climate change in our own neighborhoods.

Boom: Hi David. We’re interested in knowing what the climate crisis looks like for a majority-minority city, one populated by migrants and children of migrants. Can you tell us a little bit about how it is that you, as a child of migrants, arrived to an understanding of environmental justice and the climate crisis.

David Diaz: Yeah, it’s a nice place to start. I was born in Mexico, as you know in Baja, California, and at six months old my parents brought me over and we landed in the city of El Monte. We’re right on the border of the city of El Monte and South El Monte. So, for me growing up as a latchkey kid, my parents had to work multiple jobs to make it work. We lived in this house that was subdivided internally. So, we had what was the front of the house. And then, in addition, there were two other units that were in the back. As a latchkey kid, I grew up on frozen food. My parents, due to a lack of economic opportunities, they had to work, so they couldn’t cook fresh meals. We ate a lot of McDonalds; we had a lot of frozen food. As a result, I became an obese kid growing up. Similarly, a lot of family members, extended family members, had diabetes, heart disease, coronary related diseases. I went to a lot of funerals due to strokes. When I was probably 18, 19 years old I was at about 260 pounds. I went on this trip of Muay Thai kickboxing mixed martial arts and nutrition education, learning about how I could be a healthier individual and so through that process I ended up losing about 110 pounds. And when I was going through this process, I was also going to Rio Hondo Community College and learning about culture, the erasure of culture, displacement, all the things that were not taught at the high school level. That really impacted me deeply. I ended up going to college at Arizona State to study psychology and social health and what I looked at was how systems play a role in determining the outcomes of people’s well-being and quality of life.

When you look at the communities that I grew up in, El Monte and South El Monte, some of the realities that emerge liken it to a concrete jungle. When I say concrete jungle, what does that mean? It means the absence of canopy, urban canopy, trees, vegetation, greenery in our communities. The national average for urban canopies is about 22%, so this means the percentage of publicly owned trees. In the city of El Monte, that’s about 5%.We’re not lacking fast food or liquor stores or tobacco, you can find one of those pretty easily. We’re also a super park poor community. The national average is approximately six acres per one thousand residents, and for the cities of El Monte and South El Monte, it’s about 0.41 acres per one thousand residents. And just to give a perspective: one acre is roughly the size of a soccer field, so we’re talking about cramming one thousand people in less than half the size of a soccer field.

And so, that coupled with questions like: what were the outcomes in the community I grew up in? Severe pollution burden, high childhood and adult obesity rates, low educational attainment, high unemployment. You start looking at the connections in the system and not just pointing them to personal responsibility, but understanding that all this stuff was done intentionally. So that really motivated me to take the opportunities that were provided for me and come back into my community to be part of that change. I ended up going to Claremont Graduate University to get my Master’s of Public Health. Simultaneously, I was interning at the city of Pomona’s Manager’s Office. I was also working for a startup in south Los Angeles on this concept of dealing with the whole health of an individual. Through these experiences I was able to connect with like-minded folks and organizations that were doing work that I was interested in. One of those organizations was Day One, which was based out of Pasadena, and they actually had this position that had recently opened, and it was titled El Monte Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Coordinator. And when I read it, I remember thinking: that’s what I want to do! Like it’s in the title, what I want to do. So, I ended up applying and I got the job. And then that put me into this kick of working in El Monte and South El Monte on various initiatives.

Courtesy of Active San Gabriel Valley

Boom: One of the things that you just outlined for us is the different ways in which residents in El Monte, and other majority-minority cities, experience what we might call if not climate change, at least, environmental injustice. Lack of access to parks and green space, lack of urban canopy, easy access to fast food and liquor stores. Are there any other things that you think are ways that people experience climate crisis or environmental injustice in El Monte and South El Monte that you haven’t mentioned?

David Diaz: When I jumped into the work, it was about nutrition education and obesity prevention for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. So, it’s called SNAP for short, food stamps or food assistance program. Providing them with physical activity and nutrition education is great. However, folks would tell me things like I love to eat healthy meals, I just have to work 14 hours and my schedule is variable. And I’m also worried about my housing insecurity and also I don’t have a car. And I would love to walk in my community, but I just don’t feel safe going outside and walking, because there’s no infrastructure for people to feel safe while walking. Those include simple things like the presence of sidewalks. In El Monte, more than 35% of the sidewalk network is missing. I quickly realized that we can’t just focus on direct services. We need to continue to address the systems that are in place. Poor urban planning has led to a number of things. Harm from freeways has been documented. They’ve displaced thousands of people and mitigated generational wealth from families. The car industry in general, is problematic. So, for example, if you’re a person that’s in El Monte and you want to get to a place within the city of El Monte, pretty much your options are limited to whether you have a car. And what does that create? Car dependency, which creates dependency on oil and gas because you need that. Poor urban planning has contributed greatly to the environmental inequities that we see today. And again, those things aren’t by accident, they’re by design.

626 Golden Streets, Courtesy of Active San Gabriel Valley
Courtesy of Active San Gabriel Valley

Boom: I think one of the things that you’re teasing out is the ways in which there are individual actions and choices that one can make. But in some ways, depending on one’s class, one’s neighborhoods, folks are limited by these larger structural factors. How does Active SGV work to address personal choice and structural conditions?

David Diaz: At Active SGV our mission is to create a more sustainable, equitable, and livable San Gabriel Valley. Active SGV started off as a Facebook page in 2010 by a group of concerned residents from the San Gabriel Valley. They were a multiracial group that lives in different parts of the San Gabriel Valley, from West SGV to East SGV, all concerned about the lack of public transit and active transportation opportunities available for folks. When I say active transportation, that’s everything that’s human powered: walking, biking, skating, scooting. The Facebook page grew into an official organization. They were a chapter of Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, the Western Gabriel Bicycle Coalition, and then they ended up being called Bike San Gabriel Valley.One of the first things that they did was identify these things called master plans, like a bicycle master plan or active transportation master plan and what the gaps were for cities. There’s 31 cities and four large unincorporated areas in SGV. About 2 million residents. They audited which of these cities have done any planning or thinking about active transportation or bicycle master plans.

Since 2012, Active SGV has worked on 12 masterplan processes for 12 individual cities and counting. What that looks like is that we’ve coordinated regional efforts so that there’s regional connectivity in the San Gabriel Valley. Because it’s not enough to just create one bike lane and then see it end at the city boundary, after which you no longer have anywhere to go. For Active SGV, it’s really been about doing the work around identifying where the gaps are and then providing some of the programming ourselves. So, our focus is really on mobility, climate, and health and wellness. Those are the kind of broad categories in which we’re trying to tackle this climate crisis because we know that you need a combination of the above strategy. We need to do the engineering. We need to have actual projects or infrastructure built in the ground.

For Active SGV our communities of concern are really the ones that are most pollution burdened, impacted by pollution, park poor, low income, so that’s what we’ve focused on. The West Puente Valley, El Monte, South El Monte, La Puente, Baldwin Park, parts of Monterey Park, parts of Alhambra. We’re working in Azusa and northwest Pasadena right now, which are really impacted. We’re trying to do this multifocal approach to address some of the region’s most pressing needs. And over the last few years that’s looked like coordinating one of the longest Open Streets programs in the United States. It was 17-plus miles long, from South Pasadena, all the way up to Azusa. Open Streets provides an opportunity to take our biggest public asset, meaning the thing we have most of—roads, which are a fully funded asset—and temporarily transforming them into parks.

We are also working with UCLA and the Energy Coalition to do an indoor air quality study. There are a lot of different appliances that people use that rely on gas. El Monte and South El Monte are in the top five worst pollution burdened sites in California. And that puts us around the top 10 in the entire United States because the county has one of the worst air quality indexes in the United States. If you look at it from that frame and then you look at peoples’ indoor air quality, it’s about five to seven times worse than their outdoor air quality.

People are literally living in toxic conditions because of some behaviors, gas, not having proper installation, or the type of dwelling they’re living in. It’s a number of variables. So, what we’re hoping to do with the outcomes of this study is to inform future building codes for the State of California. Like moving to electrification.

One of the examples that is good for our health and wellness efforts is that we’re currently funded to address food insecurity in the San Gabriel Valley. What we’re doing is coordinating a number of up to 160 – 190 nutrition education and/or physical activity classes with communities that are considered SNAP eligible.

Those are just a few examples of the work that Active SGV is doing, but our frame is always investment where it’s most needed. Doing the work alongside the communities that are most in need and then thinking about multiple benefits. We know that food insecurity doesn’t exist by itself. There’s a lot of complexity that creates food insecurity. Same with absent infrastructure for people walking and biking. It just doesn’t exist by itself.

Boom: One of the images that I got when I was listening to you talk is the El Monte airport. El Monte residents don’t own the planes and they don’t get to go on the planes. It’s almost like there’s literally another freeway. What are your thoughts about the El Monte airport?

David Diaz: The airport for me is like a visualization of the inequity that occurs. Neighboring communities used to have these airports too, that were from way back when, like WWII or something like that. I’m so puzzled as to why we still have this airport that is for leisure activities of the people who have, and it comes at the expense of people who don’t have, which is the people that live in the city El Monte, including myself. I would love for there to be some type of mixed-use development at that site that includes parks and addresses the housing need and has opportunities for economic development for small business owners, entrepreneurs and people from the community. Instead of what it is right now, which is a parking lot for rich people. If I had a wish list, I would love to get rid of that airport. I don’t see the value that it brings to the city of El Monte. It doesn’t generate revenue for them, they’re not getting significant taxes from them. We’re just getting all the pollution, and all of the carbon. So, I would love to see it become something else.

Boom: There’s this term that I read in an LA Times article recently “solastaglia.” It’s a term coined by Glenn Albrecht to describe nostalgia for a place that is no longer the same place. And it’s not that place anymore because of environmental degradation, because of climate change, because it’s been transformed. This really hit me. As you know, Greater El Monte used to be surrounded by water, now it’s surrounded by freeways. We grew up with it surrounded by freeways. I imagine, some generations miss Marrano Beach and being surrounded by water. You have a baby, I have a baby. What do you think we’re going to be nostalgic for in 20 years if we keep headed in the direction we are headed?

David Diaz: As someone who’s involved in the climate world, people are pretty much of two frames of mind. One is resilience. We need to build resilience, and another way to say resilience is that we need to create adaptive strategies. Climate adaptive strategies. What that signals to me is that we pretty much have passed the point of no return. It’s like it’s coming. It’s going to happen. Therefore, let’s just try and adapt to the best of our ability. I think that right now people take for granted being able to go outside. Something as simple as that. You and I are going to miss the days where it was just as simple as, hey let’s go outside today. Because the wildfires that are happening right now aren’t a thing of this moment. They’re going to be a thing of this moment, tomorrow, next month, next year. They’re going to continue to happen and more major human made disaster events are going to continue to happen. And so when I think about it, it really comes down to things as simple as, we’re going to miss being able to go outside. You’re going to have these clean air days and not clean air days determining when you can actually go outside if we continue on the path that we are on right now without an aggressive or bold redirection somewhere else. I think it’s as simple as that. And I know that back in the smog days, people couldn’t go outside because of smog days or limit your physical activity outside because of smog. But moving forward, UCLA scientists right now are saying that the number of days by 2050, the number of days above 95 degrees are going to climb from 32 to 74 by 2050. That’s what UCLA scientists are predicting right now. Today, you and I are having this discussion and it’s currently 101 according to my watch.

Boom: Let’s end with one last question. We’ll try to end on a positive note: how can folks get involved with Active SGV? How can folks make small and big decisions that will help us move in a better direction?

David Diaz: Good question. I think in general one of the things I would offer to folks is to engage with Active SGV at activesgv.org and find our volunteer internship opportunities. We’re trying to do a much better job of building local capacity at the local level. One of the things that you mentioned right now is, how can at the individual level, people do better? One is educating themselves and we can work with folks to help them work through that education of what’s going on. I think that for me I’ve been learning as I’ve been going. What are best practices? What do we need to do? What’s the latest research? And working alongside folks to discover best strategies.

I think that one of the things that we’ve been doing a whole lot, while we still want to do a whole lot more, is build local capacity so that it could be advocacy at the local and state level. Because ultimately, one of the things is that the climate has been politicized.  We can’t agree on whether it’s real or how progressive it is, the whole electoral process, you know, from the local level to the state and national level, special interest has a lot of grip on politicians.

One of the immediate ways to engage with us is to help do some of this advocacy around some of the legislation that’s being introduced. Particularly here at the local level, as we know that our assembly members and Senate members both take a lot of oil and gas money. They voted, and you can see it, in favor of oil. They wouldn’t even agree to vote against like a 2,500 foot setback from oil drilling sites and where homes should be located. I think that’s one way. I think in general a solution that needs to be considered at the statewide level or even at the more regional level, is how we build more regenerative economies and really focus on how we can not only create – but it’s also been this battle of jobs vs climate. Either we have climate or we have jobs, and I don’t see it as that black and white. We need to be able to find ways can do it all. It’s not just investing in climate infrastructure, but it’s also investing in people; moving them onto green jobs and divestment from fossil fuels.

Divestment strategies are very important. Sign up with a credit union or public banks because private banks fund a lot of fossil fuel interest. If you currently have a pension or 401k, 403b, look at how your profits are coming back from oil and gas. What stocks are you investing in if you have that? I think that we need to build this economy where it’s inclusive of everyone. And we talk about things like a just transition. A just transition and that really gets to having a more regenerative economy that includes building good economic opportunities for folks addressing the most climate pressing needs, focusing on base frameworks, including racial justice so that we can live in the community that we’d like to. One of the things that I love about this organization that works in the southeast LA area and also Long Beach, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, that one of their hashtags is #WeAreJustTryingtoBreathe. And while that sounds simple, it’s a reality: we are just trying to breathe. We are literally just trying to breathe. And so, I would love for us to get to a point where we talk more about regenerative strategies versus resilient or adaptive ones.

David Diaz serves as the Executive Director of Active San Gabriel Valley, a local nonprofit organization, focusing on mobility, climate, and health and wellness in underserved communities. He’s a dedicated public servant and advocate with project management, coalition building experience who has successfully worked with youth, schools, businesses, nonprofit organizations and cities to advance sustainability, equity and public health. David is also a member of the El Monte Union High School District, Investing in Place Board Member, member of the San Gabriel Valley Service Council, Chair of the Measure A Oversight Committee, and Vice Chair of the Upper San Gabriel River Watershed Area Steering Committee. He holds a Masters of Public Health degree and lives in the City of El Monte.

Copyright: © 2020 David Diaz. 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/