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 America, Tiltwest,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.
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.
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.
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.
Virtually nowhere in the metropolitan United States could rent be called affordable for the average family, and there are certainly no places where a family on poverty wages could pay rent without assistance. In California, a family must report a household income of roughly $100,000 to make the median rent in the state. These numbers vary widely depending on region, reaching their most extreme levels in the Bay Area cities. However, even in Fresno, the largest urban center of the Central Valley, a family needs to earn nearly $20 per hour to afford the median rent in the area while the current state minimum wage is only $12 per hour. These gaps are not static over time but are growing as rent increases outpace wage increases, a point recently explored by The New York Times.The fallout from this feature of the affordable housing crisis is the subject of so many other stories that characterize California – homelessness, substandard housing, population decline, and displacement.
Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, directed the affordable housing crisis conversation toward one particularly devastating consequence that ultimately links the unaffordability of housing to homelessness: evictions. Often, evictions happen because the tenant failed to pay their rent. Other times, evictions occur with no fault on the part of the tenant – because of a foreclosure, habitability issues, or, egregiously, because of retaliation against the tenant by the landlord. In addition to formal, court-ordered evictions, Desmond estimates from survey data in Milwaukee that informal evictions may as much as double the total amount of evictions that take place. These are evictions that occur outside of the judicial process and reflect the vulnerable position of the tenant, who vacates the premises prior to the court filing out of fear of entering the court process or because they cannot afford the court process. Evicted forced researchers, reporters, advocates, and policymakers to realize that the process of evicting a family from their home is a key culprit in exacerbating family poverty, unemployment, and neighborhood instability. More importantly, Desmond’s work illuminated the harsh reality of a court system that is designed not to protect families from entering a downward spiral into poverty and homelessness, but to protect property.
Often, the conversations about the affordable housing crisis and its consequences focus on the major metropolitan areas of California in the Bay Area and Southern California. In a database search on scholarly articles, graduate level theses, and newspaper articles over the past 20 years using the key phrases “housing crisis” and “California”, we found 1109 results for “Bay Area,” 3081 results for “San Francisco,” 1586 results for “Southern California,” and 3525 results for “Los Angeles.” In contrast, over the same period with the same key phrases, we only found 288 results for “Central Valley” and 250 results for “Fresno.” This demonstrates that both the scholarly and popular attention has been largely focused on the housing crisis in the southern and northern metropolitan areas of California, with far less given to the Central Valley.
Yet, in Fresno alone the California Housing Partnership Corporation reported a nearly 35,000 unit shortfall in affordable housing, and the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates a 41,000 unit shortfall for the county overall. More alarmingly, Central Valley counties, where approximately 45 percent of households are renters, experience far higher rates of evictions than anywhere else in California. The typical renter in the Central Valley is rent-burdened, which is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as a household that spends 30 percent or more of its income on housing costs. Fully a quarter of those households are severely rent-burdened, defined as a household that spends half or more of its income on housing costs. For this and other reasons, including higher rates of poverty, the virtual non-existence of tenant protection programs and laws at local levels, and increased migration from Southern and Northern California metropolitan areas into the Central Valley in search of lower housing costs, the affordable housing crisis conversation must include the Central Valley.
In this piece, we examine evictions and displacement in the Central Valley. This work developed through our research and experiences as scholar-activists and housing justice advocates in the Central Valley. We focus primarily on Fresno County, a sprawling, diverse metropolitan area comprising both urban and rural settlement in the heart of the Central Valley, but also include some findings from San Joaquin and Kern Counties, which are located in the northern and southern regions of the San Joaquin Valley, respectively. We draw on data from eviction court filings, observations in eviction court, and stories from tenants in Fresno County to answer the question: What accounts for the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley? In answering this question, we develop three main points:
The affordable housing crisis conversation in California must include the Central Valley, where stark social inequalities are intricately tied with housing and neighborhood inequality. This means that scholarly work must consider the complexities of the housing crisis in California from the high-cost, high-income urban areas outside of the Central Valley to the lower-cost, lower-income urban and rural areas within the Central Valley. Housing activists as well must include the population and the needs of the Central Valley in their advocacy work and support the activism taking place within the Central Valley;
Evictions happen at a higher rate in the Central Valley than anywhere else in California. They are a devastating outcome of the affordable housing crisis and are an effective tool of the court system used to prioritize the protection of property and property-owners over poor families and families of color, and;
Immediate action could be taken by policymakers in the Central Valley at the local level that would bring balance to the relationship between tenants and property-owners and prevent further displacement, systemic social inequality, and neighborhood instability, which is particularly urgent in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impact.
Background: The Central Valley
The Central Valley is a vibrant, dynamic region known for its representation of over a hundred cultures, nationalities, and racial and ethnic identities, according to 2018 American Community Survey estimates. But it is also an area known for its high levels of social inequality by a multitude of metrics – income and wealth inequality, residential segregation, health disparities, and opportunity gaps in labor and education. The nature of social inequality in the Central Valley is so complex that it would be impossible to identify any one cause or solution. However, it becomes very clear through a spatial lens that many of the inequalities observed in the Central Valley are tied to neighborhoods and housing. When we map median income, median home values, percent in poverty, and percent nonwhite by census tract in the urban center of Fresno County, we see an indisputable overlap (Figures 1-4). To the east is the city of Clovis, a predominately White, wealthy suburb where the availability of affordable housing is so inadequate that it prompted a lawsuit by a local legal aid organization. Yet even within the more racially and socioeconomically diverse city of Fresno, it is apparent that there are distinct boundaries drawn which prevent low-income families of color from entering certain neighborhoods and in turn concentrate these families in identifiable areas of the city.
These boundaries are in part historical, tracing back to the days of racial covenants, and later redlining, which prompted further public and private disinvestment in neighborhoods where families of color resided while resources and opportunities were diverted to Whiter, wealthier neighborhoods. In addition, public housing, which shifted to become a resource for families of color neglected by the federal government, was primarily built in racially segregated neighborhoods where Black and Latinx families resided. This history is an important piece in understanding housing insecurity and inequality in Fresno because it led to widely disparate home values between neighborhoods.
Because families of color saw their neighborhoods forced to depreciate due to the actions of federal and local government, wealth and class inequality are now almost inseparable from racial inequality in Fresno. In White, affluent neighborhoods, housing values appreciated by directly benefiting from the inequities created by racist and classist housing policy. White families have enjoyed both wealth accumulation and racial exclusivity because the unaffordability of housing in these areas for low-income families has mostly meant that it is unaffordable for families of color as well. In Clovis specifically, experts argue that the deliberate choice to not zone low-income affordable housing is precisely why it is a predominately White community. These neighborhood-based inequalities created a setting where larger economic forces, in particular rising housing costs combined with depressed wages, would lead to a far more troubling human crisis: displacement and homelessness.
Evicted in the Central Valley
Given that financial hardship is responsible for both the triggering of an eviction and the vulnerability of the tenant, poverty is part of this story, but focusing on individual poverty does not capture the full effect of what changing economic conditions can do. Douglas Massey demonstrated in a compelling simulation how segregation can create a scenario where economic downturns are heavily absorbed by areas of concentrated poverty. When race and class segregation are interrelated, this specifically means that poor communities of color shoulder a heavier economic burden. In the context of an ongoing housing crisis in an area that was hit particularly hard by the housing bust, the pattern of segregation in Fresno County created an uneven distribution of evictions and displacement, with families of color seeing the most precipitous drops in housing value and poor families of color experiencing evictions at a higher rate than anybody else.
The eviction rate in 2016 in Fresno County was 2.16 percent, meaning that just over 2 percent of renters were formally evicted that year. While this seems like a negligible percentage, 2 percent amounts to over 3,000 families displaced from their homes in a single year. The volume of evictions physically manifests in the form of standing room-only crowds within the courtroom. In relative terms, the eviction rate in Fresno County is substantially higher than in both San Francisco County (0.25 percent) and Los Angeles County (0.58 percent), as well as in the state of California overall (0.83 percent). In addition, we have reason to believe that the number of families evicted each year in Fresno is perhaps thousands more when informal evictions, or evictions that happen outside of the court system, are considered.
Families who are informally evicted often vacate before the formal eviction process begins in order to avoid court action, which could incur fees and tarnish their record as a tenant. These are more likely to be impoverished families who cannot afford the added costs of responding to a court Summons and Complaint. In Fresno and surrounding rural communities, where there is also a large population of undocumented and mixed-status families in addition to families in poverty, we suspect that the number of informal evictions is even higher because of families who fear court action due to their immigration status. Even without data on informal evictions however, the number of formal evictions alone is shockingly high. Our research suggests some possible explanations for why evictions occur at such a significantly higher rate in the Central Valley than in areas with more notorious affordable housing issues.
In our previous report, we found that in 80-90 percent of eviction cases, the reason for the eviction was unpaid rent. In the majority of these cases, the amount of rent owed was less than two months’ worth. Here, then, is the first clue: rent burden. Rent burden is defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as the percentage of household income that is spent on rent. A family that spends more than 30 percent of their household income on rent is considered “rent-burdened.” The number is somewhat arbitrary, but it captures families who have less of a financial cushion when something goes wrong – an unforeseen medical incident, an accident, a sudden job loss or drop in income. In San Francisco County, where rents are among the highest in the country, rent burden is 27.5 percent, which means the typical family spends just over a quarter of their income on rent. In contrast, in Fresno County rent burden is 34.7 percent. Rental costs may be higher in the Bay Area, but costs relative to income matter. In Fresno County, the typical renter household is rent-burdened. In areas characterized by high levels of poverty, the typical family is severely rent-burdened. To reiterate, a severely rent-burdened household is defined by HUD as a household that spends half or more of its household income on rent.
Eviction Court and the Prioritization of Property
With the typical family spending over 30 percent of their income on rent, it is not a surprise that many families fail to pay rent, triggering an eviction filing almost as soon as rent is past due. From the perspective of property-owners and the court, this is reason enough to abruptly order a family out of their home. In eviction court, this process is quick and brutal. We have seen families appear for their court date unaware that their story of impending homelessness, catastrophic financial loss, and emotional and mental trauma would hold no bearing in a setting where the main priority is to protect the property and the financial interests of the landlord. Eviction court is a sphere dominated by attorneys who have made a career out of representing landlords, the same handful of predominately men appearing every week with an attitude towards the whole affair as something routine, each judgment seeming to be a foregone conclusion in favor of the landlord. The gender and racial disparities are apparent, with women of color overrepresented among tenants who appear in eviction court and White men overrepresented among the attorneys. As one tenant, a single Black mother in Fresno County, remarked on the power imbalance in the tenant-landlord attorney dynamic, “It was a lawyer against a little Black girl.” This mother was ultimately evicted with her young son after a confusing court process that left her with no option to fight her case.
In our previous study of evictions filed in 2016 in Fresno County, we found that 73 percent of the landlords in our sample had legal representation compared to only 1 percent of tenants. Not once, after months of observation, did we witness a judgment in favor of a tenant. Most families who we observed or spoke to appeared in court without any realization that they were entering partway through an ongoing process of filed paperwork, evidence-gathering, and legal consultation on the plaintiff’s (i.e. landlord’s) side. In many cases, tenants were not aware that they had missed their opportunity to file an answer, which must happen typically within five days of receiving the eviction notice, or that to have their side of the story heard they would need to have a trial separate from the unlawful detainer hearing. These trials usually occur the same day, catching tenants by surprise and without the needed evidence or witnesses to defend their case. This gives tenants little time to seek legal advice and gather documents. Oftentimes, we witnessed trials occurring within an hour of the hearing. And here, in seeking to understand why evictions happen at a higher rate in Fresno County than in other areas, is our second explanation for why evictions are so frequent: a woefully imbalanced justice system with few protections in place for tenants.
While some court processes, such as small and large claims cases, are slow and cases can carry on for months, eviction cases, known in legal terms as unlawful detainer cases, are moved through the system with astounding speed. In Fresno County, we found that most cases end in default or they are resolved and renters are evicted within a month of the initial court filing. The emphasis on property and the prioritization of the needs of property-owners is a key reason why this is so. Judges often frame their decisions as prioritizing the return of the property back to the property-owner. When talking about the property itself, judges use terms such as “expedite” and “urgent.” In contrast, there is little concern in the legal process for the tenant and their far more urgent need to stay housed. In the rare instance that tenants are truly able to confidently present their case to the judge, tenants openly express anxiety over not knowing where to go once they are locked out. Pleas are often met with expressions of sympathy from the judge but nonetheless cold resolution from the ruling, which holds that they must vacate the property or be forced out. Evictions are whiplash-fast and are considered a concluded matter almost as soon as the tenant is served with a notice. Ultimately the law is designed to put the needs of the property-owner over the needs of the tenant, who has no claim to ownership. Thus the matter of returning the property to the property-owners is often handled very quickly and decisions almost always fall in favor of the landlord. As evidence to this point, Eviction Lab data reports that of the 3,058 eviction court filings in Fresno County in 2016, 3,036 resulted in evictions – 99.3 percent. Meanwhile, the remaining issue of determining money damages that the tenant may be responsible for can be placed on a different, slower timeline.
Other actors in the eviction process, including the attorneys and law enforcement, also demonstrate the prioritization of property over humanity. In our survey research and advocacy work, tenants have described sometimes overly forceful behavior from authorities, such as sheriff’s deputies kicking down the front door while children were home alone. The overall motivation of landlord attorneys is to win cases and to collect fees that renters are typically ordered to pay, leading them to ruthlessly confuse and mislead tenants. Tenants are called to meet with landlord attorneys, without attorneys of their own, in the hallway or in small conference rooms in the courthouse. As the attorneys interact with tenants, it becomes clear whose interests they represent. We observed on numerous occasions landlord attorneys frame the situation in ways that discredit tenants’ statements and evidence, invoking anxiety and fear in the tenant, which only adds to an already stressful and confusing situation. Some of the tactics that we observed include presenting ledgers that do not include all of the payments that the tenants have made and muddling timelines so that the tenant can no longer recall dates or the order in which events occurred. Even though tenants bring their own evidence of money orders purchased and rent checks cashed, they soon begin to doubt their own account or worry that the evidence will be insufficient to win their case. Landlord attorneys make matters worse by explaining to tenants what the cost will be if they lose their case rather than settling for an agreement with the landlord.
Tenants have everything to lose, and within minutes they are forced to make a decision that is far from their original objective when they arrived at court, which was to keep their home. Now, after feeling intimidated and confused, their objective becomes: escape the court process with as little long-term consequence as possible. The property and the interests of the property-owner are the primary concern of the court, and while there are mediators to facilitate negotiations between landlords and tenants, nobody stands up for the tenant in the courtroom. The roles of advocates and activists could make a significant difference here, a factor that we discuss further in our conclusions.
Finally, the third explanation is the lack of local policies that protect renters. In California, there are jurisdictions where renter protections are well-established. However, they are very few in number: according to Tenants Together, only 23 out of 482 cities in California have rent control and/or “just cause” policies in place. Rent control effectively caps increases on rent to keep housing costs more affordable, while “just cause” requires landlords to justify their reason for issuing an eviction. Tenant protection laws are not without their controversy, but regardless of what other effects they may have, we found that in cities where these laws are in place, evictions are far more likely to be on the decline in tandem with an improving post-recession economy. In an analysis of eviction rates from 2006 to 2016 in California, we found that 70 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities with tenant protection laws in place saw eviction rates decline over the ten-year period. In comparison, only 46 percent of the neighborhoods located in cities without tenant protection laws experienced a decline in evictions. Notably, none of the twenty-three cities with local tenant protection laws are located in the Central Valley.
The recent enactment of the Tenant Protection Act of 2019 in California, which among other things makes “just cause” evictions the law across the state and caps rent increases, may improve matters in this regard. But the Central Valley continues to be notoriously lacking in local protections for tenants, a fact that is not well-understood but certainly observable in most jurisdictions, and this is reflected in the court system where tenants have little power to defend their rights by law due to a lack of legal representation and an unjustly opaque legal process that leaves many of them in a losing position over a failure to follow procedure. Recently, Nelson highlighted the discordance between how the tenant perceives the legal process of eviction and the process itself. Oftentimes, tenants misunderstand their relationship with the landlord and do not expect the swiftness of court action. Community advocates and grassroots organizations who fight for housing justice are carrying much of the critical work of educating tenants through “Know Your Rights” workshops, flyers, and resources. With local tenant unions in the Central Valley, outreach and organizing efforts could go even further.
Evictions as a Tool of the Social Divides
We have up to this point written in very general terms about eviction trends and procedures in the Central Valley and more specifically in Fresno, but our discussion about the historically established class and race divides in Fresno is important to bear in mind, because these determine who is more likely to face eviction. According to national estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey, 3.3 percent of Black renters reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to only 1.3 percent of White renters. For those who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, the disparity is even more staggering, with 4.4 percent reporting an eviction threat. Poverty and rent-burden are also factors, reflecting the relationship between housing insecurity and financial insecurity. Of those who are severely rent-burdened, 2.6 percent reported receiving a threat of eviction compared to 1.4 percent of those whose housing costs relative to income are moderate. Of renters who live below the poverty line, 3.2 percent reported receiving an eviction threat compared to only 1 percent of those whose income is 200 percent of the poverty threshold.
The obvious consequence of evictions is that families who are evicted find themselves suddenly severely housing insecure. But the fallout of an eviction is even more widespread and far-reaching than its effect on housing options. In our analysis of eviction court records in Fresno County, we calculated a measure that we call “compounded burden.” As we described above, most tenants are evicted over failure to pay rent. But the final money judgment includes the original amount owed plus other costs: holdover damages (i.e. the money that the landlord has lost in unpaid rent since the eviction) and attorney and court fees. The compounded burden is the factor by which the initial amount owed is multiplied when the final money judgment is made.
On average, tenants end up having to pay four times what they initially owed. The average tenant in our study owed approximately $1000 at the time of eviction. Based on the average compounded burden, the average tenant will find herself owing $4000 when the final judgment is made. If this amount goes unpaid, the State of California permits a 10% annual interest rate on the amount owed. Each year that the amount goes unpaid, this hypothetical average tenant who no doubt struggles with a multitude of financial hardships will owe another $400. Indeed, from our observations in eviction court it was not unusual to hear of a money judgment that would include nearly $1000 in attorney and court fees alone along with holdover damages that would amount to 1-2 more months’ rent in addition to the initial amount owed. Another factor associated with compounded burden is the prolonged period of time that vulnerable tenants are forced to carry debt. For example, a tenant and landlord enter into a stipulation (agreement between two parties approved by the judge) in the amount of $4,300, which includes past due rent, holdover damages, and court and attorney fees. The tenant, who makes a minimum wage, can only afford to pay $35 per month and is now carrying this debt for 10 years. Evictions alone may not affect a tenant’s credit score. However, if a tenant is ordered to pay money damages and fails to pay, they can be sent to collections. A credit reporting agency then places derogatory information on their credit report. Evictions with money damages are a twofold blow. Threefold, if you include the fact that a judgment accrues interest.
And this measure of compounded burden does not account for all of the other costs incurred from a sudden displacement – moving costs, storage fees, hours missed at work, extra transportation costs to handle legal obligations, search for a new place, and drive children to schools in neighborhoods that they no longer live in, the exorbitant cost of taking up temporary shelter in a motel, which many families do in Fresno, and the repeated fees attached to each rental application (up to $35 per application). It becomes apparent that an eviction, triggered by financial hardship, begets even greater financial hardship. When one considers that the families who are more likely to face an eviction are families of color, have children, and live in poverty, we can understand how so many social disparities can persist.
Consider, for example, the impact that an eviction has on a child – after all, children are one of the most likely populations to experience eviction. The social lives of children are anchored in multiple ways – their families, but also their neighborhoods and especially their schools. When a family is evicted, they are not likely to stay in the same neighborhood. This disruption removes a child from their neighborhood and may eventually force them to enroll in a new school, breaking critical social ties with teachers, classmates, and neighborhood friends. When we examined the frequency of evictions by month in Fresno County, we found that evictions happen at a high rate every month out of the year, which means that hundreds of families are evicted in the middle of the school year as well as during summer and winter breaks (Figure 5). Even if a child is able to stay in the same school, school attendance becomes difficult to maintain while the family is displaced and the parents are managing the situation. An eviction event can be traumatic for a child despite a parent’s best efforts to protect them, particularly when the eviction is carried out by law enforcement. Children coping with instability in their lives are more likely to face challenges when it comes to mental health and development. With conscious support from educators, this sudden disruption can be mitigated in its impact on the child’s social, emotional, and academic outcomes. However, while school districts track an overlapping population of students who are homeless, they do not specifically track students who have experienced an eviction.
The spatial dynamics of these trends again must be considered. Sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, in their influential work American Apartheid, drew out how segregation works as an effective mechanism for reinforcing inequality and oppression. When segregation is in place, it becomes very easy for the dominant group – wealthy Whites – to hoard resources and opportunities even while living in the same metropolitan area as other groups. In a metropolitan area, this can happen through municipal boundaries, with Whites moving to suburbs with exclusionary zoning and cutting off Black and Latinx families from their tax base and resources. As mentioned previously, this is the story that is told about the city of Clovis. In a single city, however, where all residents to a limited degree have access to the same tax base, more covert tactics must be used to maintain race and class boundaries and restrict access to the higher investments and newer development of White neighborhoods. The favored tactic in this scenario is housing discrimination.
There are many ways that housing discrimination can occur: for example, through steering, whereby realtors and property managers selectively show properties to families on the basis of their race and/or income, through housing loan discrimination, or through screening out prospective tenants who have Section 8 vouchers, (i.e. housing assistance). In California, all of these tactics are now outlawed under federal and state laws (e.g. Fair Housing Act of 1968 and SB 329). While this does not stop these forms of discrimination from occurring and enforcement is weak at best, it certainly reduces their frequency. But there is one extremely powerful, legal way to screen out low-income applicants, which in a city like Fresno can also effectively block many Black and Latinx households: deny them housing on the basis of an eviction record. When a tenant is evicted by the court, the eviction appears on their tenant record for seven years. Evicted tenants are placed on what is essentially a tenant blacklist with little chance of finding rental housing outside of areas of high poverty. In talking about the eviction on her record, one tenant said, “I’ve got seven years,” as if it were a prison sentence. In a way, an eviction on record likely does have a similar impact as a felony conviction when it comes to finding housing, especially in an area with an enormous deficit in affordable housing. Another tenant, a single mother with her daughter, expressed fear of losing her Section 8 housing following an eviction judgment. The loss of public housing assistance is an enormous blow, given that the waitlist for public housing assistance is closed in Fresno County and families on the list wait years to receive assistance.
The financial and emotional destruction that an eviction can create for a family is so immense that it is difficult to overstate, but evictions also contribute to instability in neighborhoods. If there were no geographic pattern to evictions, we would speak only of the effect on the family. But evictions are not geographically random and they happen in certain areas with remarkable frequency. In Fresno, specific parts of the county and especially in the city of Fresno experience higher rates of eviction than others (Figure 6). In neighborhoods of concentrated poverty where the population is predominately Black, Latinx, or Southeast Asian, and the typical family is spending over half of their income on rent, the eviction rates reach as high as 10 percent, which means that nearly 1 in 10 families are evicted every year in these neighborhoods. This, again, does not account for the informal evictions that are also occurring in these areas.
With such a high rate of turnover, neighborhood cohesion and solidarity is very difficult to establish, which makes it challenging for residents to build safe and healthy communities and, importantly, mobilize and wield political power. This particular consequence of evictions is two-sided: while poor communities with high instability have difficulty developing political capital, wealthier stable communities are able to lobby on their own behalf and claim more of the city’s resources and investment. The blame for this imbalance is often directed towards the poor communities, with local agencies such as the police department referring to them as “broken” neighborhoods and letting others assume that it is the residents themselves who did the breaking. But the instability of these neighborhoods is largely affected by external mechanisms of destabilization, including evictions.
Given that evictions happen at a higher rate in neighborhoods where poor, Black, and Latinx families live, segregation is reinforced. Because these families now have an eviction on their record as a tenant, they find themselves barred from entering wealthier, Whiter neighborhoods where families enjoy better-funded schools, maintained roads, more parks and greenspace, and newer housing stock. They not only become stuck in neighborhoods marred by disinvestment, they actually sink deeper into these areas as they must now find housing where landlords are willing to overlook their eviction record. In a city like Fresno where slum housing is numerous, these families have a higher likelihood of finding themselves in the clutches of slumlords, living in substandard housing with an even higher risk of eviction.
Many more evicted tenants may end up homeless, but the likelihood of homelessness following an eviction is not equal for all tenants. National estimates from the 2017 American Housing Survey reveal that among renters, White households, households above the poverty line, and households who are not rent-burdened are more likely to say that they can find a new home if they are evicted. Black householders, severely rent-burdened households, and households living below the poverty line are more likely to say that they will go to a shelter following an eviction (Figure 7). In our ongoing eviction court study, we have yet to survey a tenant who knows where they will live after being evicted from their current home, with some expressing only the possibility that they could move in with a family member and others telling us that they have moved into a motel room.
Beyond the communities that suffer the direct consequences of housing insecurity and evictions, the jurisdiction also pays a price for not doing more to keep families in stable housing. The cost of evicting a family who could not afford rent and certainly cannot afford the added fees accrued through the court eviction process is borne by local governments. Counties must deal with the cost of processing thousands of evictions a year, and both cities and counties must devote more funding to public programs to support a growing homeless population who not only lack shelter but may also have more complicated healthcare needs.
After the Pandemic
When we first began researching and writing on this topic, the COVID-19 virus was not a part of the conversation. But now we are in the middle of a pandemic and what appears to be a massive societal shift as we rapidly adjust our entire way of life to prevent the spread of a highly infectious disease. Social scientists and social advocates fear that this shift will follow the well-worn paths carved out by centuries of systemic oppression and resulting social inequalities. As unemployment surges in the immediate economic fallout of a nation under siege, we have every reason to expect a widening of the chasm between those with wealth and those without.
In the weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic truly began to hit home in the United States, housing advocates raised the alarm based on what we already knew about the precariousness of being a renter. In the Central Valley, where the majority of renters experience unsustainable levels of rent burden, we knew that the public health safety measures put in place which resulted in cutting wage-labor hours, layoffs, and school closures would leave low-income renters unable to make next month’s rent. Some local jurisdictions in California acted quickly to protect renters, but none in the Central Valley led the way. In Kern County, only the City of Delano instated any renter protections. San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties adopted emergency resolutions with language revoking commercial and residential landlord authority to evict tenants for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. However, both resolutions offer zero guidelines on what tenants can or should do if they are served with a notice. The City of Stockton was the first in the Central Valley to enact emergency measures temporarily halting some evictions, but they are inadequate for providing much-needed protections for the most vulnerable renters.
In the City of Fresno, the reaction was lethargic and the final policy decision, which came only after Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-28-20 authorizing local jurisdictions to take emergency action on evictions, fell far short of providing needed protection for renters. Fresno City Council, like other local governments, passed a policy that placed the burden of protection squarely on renters. Renters needed to be aware of the ordinance and then notify their landlord in writing of their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 and provide documentation within 10 days of notifying their landlords. Evictions for reasons other than nonpayment were excluded from the order (e.g. unauthorized occupants to care for a loved one or shelter in place with family). This left many renters still at risk of eviction.
Ultimately, only around 10 percent of the jurisdictions across California chose to instate any sort of emergency ordinance for renters during peak months of unemployment. Most of the orders adopted a similar approach, helping renters establish a legal defense against eviction for nonpayment of rent due to COVID-19. Under the emergency ordinances put in place by local jurisdictions and another executive order by Governor Newsom, some tenants were given the opportunity to document their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19 so that, upon receiving an eviction notice, they could respond to the complaint in court with evidence that their failure to pay rent was due to loss of income or health issues related to the pandemic. This policy is fundamentally different from an eviction moratorium, which legal experts describe as a comprehensive ban on eviction filings. The only example of a moratorium in California was in Oakland where landlords are able to bring a small claims suit for past due rent but cannot file an eviction lawsuit.
But still, there is reason to hope. While the decisions by local and state policymakers to address eviction still inherently privilege the landlord over the tenant, many policymakers made it clear that they are not ignorant of the calls from housing advocates. In early April 2020, the Judicial Council of California, which is responsible for making rules for courts in the state of California, did what other government entities would not and halted the processing of all eviction filings (with some public safety exceptions) for the duration of the pandemic emergency, temporarily, but comprehensively, addressing the gap in protections put in place by the Governor’s executive order and local emergency orders. The ruling was lifted on September 1 but was followed by the passage of AB 3088 in the California legislature, which protects tenants from eviction due to nonpayment of rent through February 2021. Immediately after the passage of AB 3088, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a nationwide moratorium on evictions in the name of public health.
These are signs of progress. The recognition that many renters are housing insecure and vulnerable to crises positions our society to make long-lasting structural changes. However, the will to shift the balance of power between owners and tenants is still anemic in the Central Valley, with few jurisdictions signaling that they are considering the aftereffects of the pandemic on renters when the emergency ordinances are lifted and the business of evictions can return to full operation. This means that once the emergency orders are lifted, if tenants are served with a notice, they must still go through the court process of responding to an eviction lawsuit and gathering their own evidence to defend their case. Tenants must still be prepared to navigate the legal system to retain their housing, almost always without legal assistance or representation. Therefore, the systemic problems that we identified as contributing to the high eviction rates observed in the Central Valley prior to this pandemic, such as the lack of legal representation for tenants, are likely to remain in place and allow this current state of emergency to exacerbate the eviction crisis in the region. Indeed, California scored only a 0.9 out of 5 on the Eviction Lab’s COVID-19 Housing Policy Scorecard, a policy analysis tool designed to evaluate the extent to which state governments are protecting tenants from displacement during and after the pandemic, because statewide orders do little to truly prevent a surge in evictions. They choose only to defer rather than halt evictions.
We can also assume that informal evictions, which operate outside of the law and therefore are unlikely to be affected by policy changes aimed at formal evictions, will carry on. These evictions primarily impact undocumented or mixed-status immigrant households and extremely financially precarious households – the same households that are at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection due to a reliance on essential worker jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing, and service industries. To be protected by the COVID-19 emergency policies, one must be privileged by the law in the first place. Based on Desmond’s work, the implication is that undocumented families, extremely poor families, and families impacted by mass incarceration are less likely to find protection from displacement during the pandemic, especially if they are renting from slumlords.
We cannot say with certainty what our society will look like when we come out on the other side of this global crisis, but we can formulate some predictions regarding evictions based on the existing evidence. Without taking action to instate long-term protections for renters, we expect to return to a standing-room only eviction court when society is restored to something akin to normal. Tenants are placed at an institutional disadvantage by a society that has always privileged the needs and interests of those who own property over those who do not. This truth is reflected even in the COVID-19 emergency ordinances, which only extend protection from evictions while the state of emergency is ongoing. Once the public health crisis is over and the danger is no longer imminent, there is no obvious plan to protect renters from the full force of eviction proceedings throughout the Central Valley, which means that the emergency ordinances are not about making radical changes to reduce the financial and social vulnerability of renters.
Conclusion: What Should Be Done?
The skeptic who asks whether the goal should be to reduce evictions may now understand that the consequences of eviction are multilayered and far-reaching, exacerbating deep family poverty, uprooting children from their schools and communities, and destabilizing neighborhoods. Anybody who believes in the importance of a functioning society ought to agree that these issues, especially when they are systemic, are signs of societal dysfunction. In the Central Valley, with high levels of poverty and a worsening housing crisis, we argue that we are witnessing dysfunction. We also argue that stable housing is critical for giving families opportunities and ensuring their health and well-being. Housing may not solve every issue, but it certainly, as Desmond so vividly demonstrated in his work, gives families stable ground to stand on and address other issues.
Tens of thousands of eviction lawsuits are filed annually throughout the Central Valley and even greater numbers of informal evictions occur outside of the legal realm. The narrative that displacement is a problem in the Bay Area and Southern California and rents are affordable in the Central Valley is false and harmful. Affordability is relative to wages, cost of living, the supply of affordable housing, and strong public policies that protect tenants and landlords. This false narrative must be challenged because it serves to exacerbate the existing housing crisis in the Central Valley as residents from Southern California and the Bay Area are pushed out of their communities and spill over into the Central Valley. The Central Valley has the highest rate of evictions in California and the majority of cases end in a Clerk Default Judgment. This means that tenants automatically lose, by default, before they ever have a chance to share their side of the story. Too many tenants cannot access or navigate the complicated court system within the very narrow window permitted. This leads us to conclude that the court system is designed to operate as a debt collector or legally sanctioned displacement instrument for landlords. The bottom line: the system prioritizes the protection of private property and property-owners over poor families and families of color.
Our previous analysis of court records in addition to our observations and survey data from eviction court have led us to some possible solutions. In our research, we found that most tenants (83%) owed less than two months’ rent and half of these tenants owed only one month plus late fees, meaning that often tenants are issued a notice almost as soon as their rent is late. We found that the property owners with the largest portfolios only accounted for just over 2 percent of all evictions in Fresno County. This leads us to conclude that the majority of evictors are landlords who own few properties and in many cases may only own one other property which they are financing and renting out, perhaps as a strategy for building personal wealth. We say this with the understanding that slumlords with large portfolios use multiple LLCs to obscure the size of their holdings. But the ‘mom and pop’ landlords, understandably, cannot afford for their tenants to miss rent. Local emergency rent funds could prevent a majority of evictions from occurring, ultimately helping the tenant family stay in their home until a long-term solution is reached and protecting the landlord from sudden financial difficulties. Fully-funded local rental assistance programs are crucial to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. Emergency rent (or relocation) assistance is a proactive measure that will help stabilize housing for tens of thousands of Central Valley renters. Over the span of the COVID-19 pandemic, following pressure from housing advocates, major Central Valley cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton passed emergency rent assistance programs. However, these programs are COVID-19 focused and largely funded with CARES Act funds – the first major COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress – and thus there is no indication that these rental assistance programs will remain in place or stay funded when the state of emergency ends.
Further, John Pollock, Coordinator for the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel argues that providing vulnerable tenants access to legal representation in eviction cases is critical to prevent displacement. A growing number of jurisdictions across the nation (San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Newark, and New York) agree and findings that assess the impact of these programs on reducing evictions are promising. New York City, the first city to implement a Right to Counsel for eviction, experienced a 14% decrease in eviction filings in the first year and a significant number of families (84%) who were served with an unlawful detainer lawsuit remained in their homes.
Similarly, the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590), which launched housing pilot projects in six California counties (Kern, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Yolo) led to positive outcomes for tenants. Tenants received either full-scope legal representation (i.e. having an attorney file pleadings, and represent the tenant in court, etc.) or access to court services such as legal advice and/or were provided assistance filling out and filing court documents. With greater access to legal representation tenants were able to successfully navigate the court process, negotiate a fair settlement (70%), have their case heard by a judge and secure a favorable outcome. Major findings from the first-year evaluation of San Francisco’s universal right to counsel program found a 10% reduction in eviction lawsuit filings from 2018 to 2019, an increase in housing stability among tenants (67% of those receiving full legal representation were able to remain in their homes), with an even higher rate of success (80%) for African American tenants. Although the program does not restrict access on the basis of household income, 85% of recipients were extremely low or low income. The cards are stacked against tenants who are poor, and among economically vulnerable Black and Latinx tenants in particular. A civil right to counsel is only one tool, but it is proving effective in leveling the playing field for tenants in eviction court. As policymakers search for solutions to address the eviction crisis, especially as a means to combat long-standing racial inequities, a civil right to counsel that includes proactive rent assistance shows promise in addressing economic and racial inequities in housing. In addition, while most housing advocacy groups cannot give legal advice, they have increasingly carried some of the work of legal aid organizations by organizing workshops, creating toolkits, appearing at hearings, and sharing information through social media networks to help tenants prepare for eviction court and defend themselves from illegal landlord activity. These efforts should be more fully supported with public funding and resources.
Housing advocates have been regularly attending city council and board of supervisor meetings across the Central Valley to give public comment, in addition to holding research meetings with local elected officials and state representatives, to inform elected leaders of the eviction crisis, pressure them to take action, and bring concrete policy solutions to the table. We believe that when elected leaders are presented with evidence of a crisis impacting thousands of people in their community annually with no end in sight, they have a moral, ethical, and legal duty to act and act quickly. Some have risen to their duty under the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis by enacting temporary restrictions on evictions and rent relief programs, but the actions taken fall woefully short of instating long-term stabilizing protections. We have outlined the multitude of problems associated with the eviction crisis, the longstanding inequities that lock poor families and families of color out of safe, decent, and affordable housing opportunities, and demonstrated how the eviction court process disadvantages renters. We provided evidence-based solutions that elected leaders can enact immediately to combat the eviction crisis in the Central Valley. We have demonstrated that the Central Valley must be included in the conversations about housing justice. We are now, in the middle of a pandemic, certainly in an unprecedented time but crises have a way of bringing to the surface longstanding injustices which create the opportunity for systemic change. We can reimagine a new normal where every human lives in a safe and affordable home in a thriving neighborhood.
 Rebecca Diamond, Tim McQuade, and Franklin Qian, “The Effects of Rent Control Expansion on Tenants, Landlords, and Inequality: Evidence from San Francisco,” American Economic Review 109, no. 9, (2019)
 Michael C. Lens, Kyle Nelson, Ashley Gromis, and Yiwen Kuai, “The Neighborhood Context of Eviction in Southern California,” City & Community, https://doi.org/10.111.12487 (2020); Nkosi et al. (2019)
 City of Delano, “An Urgency Ordinance Of The City Council Of The City Of Delano Temporarily Prohibiting Evictions Of Residential Tenants Arising From Income Loss Or Substantial Medical Expenses Related To The Covid- 19 Pandemic,” March 26, 2020, https://www.cityofdelano.org/ArchiveCenter/ViewFile/Item/2465
Amber R. Crowell is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on residential segregation, housing, social inequality, and race. She has published research on the spatial demography and driving factors behind racial residential segregation patterns. She is also a community advocate for tenants’ rights in the Central Valley, working to reduce evictions and establish a right to housing for all. She currently serves as Regional Housing Coordinator for the grassroots community organization Faith in the Valley and is an appointed member of the City of Fresno Anti-Displacement Task Force.
Janine Nkosi is a dedicated and passionate sociologist, activist-educator, and community-based researcher. She is firmly committed to helping folks develop and deepen their sociological imagination through critical community-based research and organizing to address some of the most pressing issues in the community. Dr. Nkosi is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Fresno State and teaches full-time at Merritt College in Oakland, CA. She is the Regional Advisor for Faith in the Valley a grassroots community organization dedicated to working alongside residents to advance racial justice across the Central Valley. One of the campaigns Janine is involved in is the Healthy Housing Campaign, which is rooted in a belief that housing is a fundamental human right, and everyone deserves a safe, healthy, and deeply affordable place to call home. Janine’s teaching, research, and organizing philosophy are rooted in critical race methodologies, critical pedagogy, relational organizing, asset-based perspectives, and lived experience.
It has been 13 years since I first traveled to El Salvador. My father, Ramon, left his homeland of El Salvador for the U.S. in the late 1970s. Ramon was always in and out of my life. The last time I saw my father was in 2004. By the time I took this trip, I had completely lost contact with him. This trip to El Salvador was my way to connect with Ramon’s home country without having a relationship with him. It was my way of searching for an opaque past.
While in El Salvador, I learned the significance of “memoria histórica” (historical memory). To know history, is to know oneself. As Italian socialist, Antonio Gramsci, once said: “The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.” My yearning to trace my history would not bring me closer to Ramon, but it would help me understand him and myself. It permanently informed my political consciousness and commitments, and the love I have for El Salvador.
In Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas (Harper Collins, 2020), scholar, activist, and journalist Roberto Lovato takes us through his own journey of re-membering the infinite traces of his life as a child of Salvadoran migrants in the Mission District of San Francisco. By navigating through history, borders, silences and half-truths, Lovato excavates his family’s past, his participation in the Salvadoran revolutionary process, and the “gangs-as-cause-of-every-problem-thesis” in El Salvador. While mainstream media, law enforcement, and U.S. presidents point toward gangs such as MS13 as the culprit of Central America’s social problems, Lovato complicates this claim. Unforgetting is an urgent demand to sit with the beauty and messiness in our lives, our traumas, and the historical moments that shape our present and possibly our futures.
This morning, my neighbor was gardening. His tool of choice? The machete he brought back from visiting his family in El Salvador. As I heard him hacking away at the branches of a tree, I was reminded of the first words in Lovato’s memoir: “The machete of memory can cut swiftly or slowly.” The machete, a cultural reference to El Salvador for many of us, is the tool of choice Lovato uses to conjure the memories that have shaped him, his family and all Salvadorans. With this machete, Lovato cuts and slices through over 80 years of Salvadoran history. Rather than a simple, linear narrative beginning in the past and ending in the present, Lovato travels through distinct instances of his father’s life, his own life, and the historical events that connect towns and cities in El Salvador to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Karnes County, Texas. The machete of memory, Lovato reminds us, is versatile. It can summon pain, love, and nostalgia. The memories shared by Lovato in his memoir invite us to feel a collage of emotions while grounding us in their material conditions.
“My story is apocalyptic in the original sense of the term in Greek: apokaluptō…to uncover, lay open what has been veiled or covered up.” Like a finely made braid, Lovato interlaces his family’s history with the history of El Salvador. Through the Matanza of 1932, the migrations of Salvadorans to Mexico and to the U.S., the revolutionary struggles of the 1980s, the criminalization of youth, and the caging of Salvadoran refugees during the Obama and Trump administrations, Lovato and his family are always present. Rather than bystanders, Lovato shows how he, his grandmother, his father, his mother, his aunts, and cousins, were all active agents in the making of El Salvador and the Mission District of San Francisco. Through memoria histórica, Lovato shares his journey of uncovering his father’s intimate connection to the 1932 massacre of over 30,000 indigenous people and communists. The moment his father shares his testimonio is one of the most powerful images in the memoir: “At that moment, my eight-eight-year-old father became the nine-year-old boy who’d witnessed one of the worst massacres in the history of the Americas.”
If you have followed Lovato’s journalism and activism throughout the years, you know he does not shy away from showing us his rage. “Rage is my vocation,” he states. By way of Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez’s lyrics in “Días y Flores,” we learn the origins of Lovato’s rage and how it shifted from his family, El Salvador, and himself to U.S. empire. Through Lovato’s intimate and comradely relationship with a Salvadoran revolutionary named G, we are taken through scenes of U.S. imperialism in El Salvador, its support of death squads, and the revolutionary struggles for Salvadoran dignity during the 1980s civil war. Revolution is a major theme in Lovato’s memoir. Although the word revolution might be outdated for some, Lovato reminds us its ideals and necessity live on.
Instead of reifying gang violence in El Salvador, Lovato urges us to think deeply and try to understand what turns kids into violent, even murderous gang members while also holding space for the child victims of this violence, what he calls a “double helix of death,” that condemns many in El Salvador. In many scenes of the memoir, Lovato forces us to reckon with a whirlwind of emotions that does not explain away the violence, but rather helps us understand it. Through his own investigations, Lovato argues the violence we often hear about through the corporate media “is no small part, an expression of forgotten American violence.” He reminds us that the most destructive agents in El Salvador are not the youth gangs, but the gangsters in suits who are “protected by even more violent gangsters in military uniforms.”
According to Central American Studies scholar Ester E. Hernández, “the process of transmitting cultural memory brings to light the history of diaspora.” Through her use of the concept “working memory,” Hernández shows how U.S.-based Central Americans use film, murals, and performances to revisit complex and contradictory narratives of war, migration, and resistance. Adding to this working memory and history of the Salvadoran diaspora, Lovato’s Unforgetting contributes to U.S.-based Central American cultural production, activism, and the growing field of Central American Studies. It is part and parcel of a growing tradition of U.S.-based Central Americans writing their own radical histories of U.S. empire. This memoir is an ideal text for undergraduate courses and people interested in Salvadoran history.
Unforgetting is an invitation, or more like a demand, to remember the violence of settler colonialism, anti-communism, and imperialist interventions in El Salvador. Simultaneously, it is a refusal to forget the love, hope, agency, and struggles of Salvadorans and Central Americans. It is a timely memoir that should be studied on your own or with a study group. As we continue to hear, see, and organize against the caging, raiding, and deporting of our people, let us remember Lovato’s call to action. We must never forget the roots causes of the trauma, forced displacement, and criminalization. We must never forget the dignity of our people. Salvadorans have a rich history. Lovato urges others to read, listen, and learn from them.
 Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 2nd ed. Edited by Quintin Hoare and Geoffret Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1999, 324.
 Lovato, Roberto. Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas. New York: Harper Collins, 2020, xvii
 Hernández, Ester E. “Remembering Through Cultural Interventions: Mapping Central Americans in L.A. Public Space,” in U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance. Edited by Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017, 144.
Eighteenth-century prison reformer John Howard was endowed not only with a considerable fortune but with an inquisitive eye and a compassionate heart. In 1777, following his tour of more than one hundred prisons in England and Wales, Howard published The State of the Prisons, which opens as follows:
There are prisons, into which whoever looks will, at first sight of the people confined there, be convinced, that there is some great error in the management of them; the sallow meagre countenances declare, without words, that they are very miserable; many who went in healthy, are in a few months changed into emaciated dejected objects. Some are seen pining under diseases, “sick and in prison;” expiring on the floors, in loathsome cells, of pestilential fevers, and the confluent small-pox; victims, I must say not to the cruelty, but I will say to the inattention, of sheriffs, and gentlemen in the commission of the peace…. The cause of this distress is, that many prisons are scantily supplied, and some almost totally unprovided with the necessaries of life.
The connection Howard made between incarceration and disease was fortified by his later adventures: after a brief stint as prison reform administrator, he returned to his travels, experiencing people’s fear of the plague and finding himself imprisoned at a lazaretto in Venice. Miasma and contagion are not only metaphors for the prison experience: they have been part and parcel of the reality of incarceration, to the point that the architecture of early American prisons was explicitly designed to prevent disease spread.
Recently, at a press conference held in front of the San Quentin gates, Dr. Peter Chin-Hong from the University of California, San Francisco, eerily echoed Howard’s conclusions. Facing the COVID-19 crisis that has ravaged California prisons, and remembering the years-long struggle with valley fever infections in the same prisons, he remarked that “prisons are incompatible with healthcare.”
At the time of writing this particular essay, more than half of the incarcerated population of San Quentin has been infected with COVID-19. There are 8,429 cases of the virus in California prisons—eight times the infection rate in the general state population—and only a little over half of the prison population has been tested. Fifty people have died, twenty-two of them at San Quentin and sixteen at the California Institute of Men in Chino. The crisis at San Quentin, brought about by a botched transfer of untested people from Chino, has provoked outrage from advocates, activists, health care and criminal justice professionals. After the San Quentin press conference, which featured lawmakers and elected officials as well as formerly incarcerated people and loved ones of people directly impacted by the contagion, Governor Newsom announced the upcoming release of up to 8,000 prisoners. Albeit a welcome initial step to alleviate virus-ravaged state prisons, I argue here that the strategy proposed by the Governor and CDCR will not suffice to stop the contagion and save lives.
My analysis places the Governor’s announcement in the context of California’s political culture and its historical struggle with overcrowded prisons and inadequate healthcare. Against a backdrop of decades of neglect, abuse, and iatrogenic disease and death, after pressure by federal courts the state released large numbers of prisoners starting in 2011. This was accomplished primarily via two statutory amendments: the Criminal Justice Realignment, which shifted the responsibility for nonviolent, nonserious, nonsexual offenders (the “non-non-nons”) to the counties; and Prop. 47, which reclassified some common felonies as misdemeanors. The good intentions behind these efforts, however, backfired in creating vague standards for overcrowding and in decentralizing the responsibility for people’s health by placing people in ill-prepared contexts. In addition, the focus on less-controversial categories of prisoners as reform targets, which made them more palatable to the public, ignored robust literature on the risk of reoffending. These well-intended reforms, against the backdrop of the horrors that preceded them and the political culture in which they were implemented, are at the root of today’s prison COVID-19 crisis; moreover, the reforms proposed now echo these flaws, and are therefore insufficient and ineffective to combat the pandemic threat, or offer any kind of comprehensive and compassionate reform.
In other words, not only is the COVID-19 crisis in prison a function of persistent structural, administrative, and persistent cultural-political conditions, but the proposed solution reflects and exploits these same weaknesses.
Context: California as a Populistic, Polarized State
In her book The Politics of Incarceration Vanessa Barker compares the political cultures of three states: California, Washington, and New York. Barker attributes the different degrees of punitiveness in these three states to their levels and styles of civic engagement and to their political makeup. California’s political culture, which Barker refers to as “polarized populism,” is characterized by great contrasts between right and left, and by an emotion-driven referendum system, which is used frequently by parties with private interests and the ability to fund expensive public campaigns. In contrast to Washington’s political culture, which features a town-hall style deliberate democracy, and to the elitist-pragmatic principles characterizing New York, California’s culture renders it vulnerable to arguments based on high emotional valence. In this environment, “redball crimes”—violent, heinous crimes, which are as rare as they are shocking—have a strong rhetorical pull, which is effectively utilized to introduce punitive voter initiatives, particularly by California’s powerful prison guard union and its connections with victims’ rights organizations. These characteristics prime our state conversations about criminal justice to revolve around, on one hand, a laissez-faire attitude and, on the other, a fear of crime (and so-called “criminals”), and particularly a reluctance to seriously consider nonpunitive reforms to sentencing and incarceration of people convicted of crime—especially “violent crime.”
These tendencies were exacerbated by California’s pioneering transition to a system of determinate sentencing in 1977, which removed the judges’ ability to sentence defendants by using a breadth of considerations and greatly limited the authority of parole boards to set prisoner release dates. Before this reform, California’s prisons, by contrast to Arizona and Texas’ “cheap justice” farm- and plantation-like institutions, were large bureaucratic creatures, driven by ideas of correction and rehabilitation fostered by employees from therapeutic professions who toiled in obscurity within the prison. The transition to a determinate sentencing model shifted the power from these professionals to elected officials: legislators, who responded to public emotions and demands by proposing punitive bills, and prosecutors, who had the power to choose charging offenses. Gradually, felony sentencing in California increased in length, largely due to the creation of sentencing enhancements and aggravating conditions, resulting in the largest prison population in the United States and in grossly overcrowded institutions.
Healthcare in California Prisons Before Brown v. Plata
The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Plata (2011), which upheld a federal three-judge-panel order to alleviate prison overcrowding under the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (PLRA), was the culmination of a decades-long litigation effort on behalf of incarcerated people seeking relief from the abysmal prison healthcare system. This drastic measure was adopted after several less extreme reforms failed, including placing the entire prison healthcare system in the hands of a federal receiver. Despite eating up more than a fourth of the California correctional budget, the healthcare system was a reign of chaos and neglect. Every six days, a prisoner would die from a preventable (sometimes iatrogenic) condition. The case’s namesake was emblematic: Marciano Plata hurt himself in 1997 in the course of working in the prison kitchen and was unable to continue working in the prison kitchen. Unable to get adequate medical attention because of insufficient medical staffing, Plata’s condition worsened to the point that his knee required surgery, which took years to schedule.
Throughout the Plata litigation, California prisons were grossly overcrowded at near 200% of their design capacity. “Bad beds”—triple bunks and makeshift beds in hallways and gyms—were a common sight in the system. These conditions hindered the system’s ability to provide basic healthcare for several reasons. Correctional medical personnel were (and still are) difficult to hire and retain, because of California’s unattractive correctional geography: large institutions in remote, rural locations. Providing for necessities such as housing, clothing, and feeding on such a scale required considerable compromises in quality, making it difficult to introduce preventative health measures. This problem was compounded by California’s increasingly lengthy sentences: as a consequence of repeated “public safety” legislation adding sentencing enhancements, one fourth of the current prison population has a life sentence, producing an aging population in increasingly poor health, which requires more chronic and expensive healthcare. Under these circumstances, registration and pharmaceutical services became disorganized and dated. Even when people were finally taken to medical appointments, they would be required to wait for long hours in tiny holding cages without access to bathrooms. Taking prisoners to medical appointments often required lockdowns, which in turn created more delays and administrative hassles. And the prisoners’ medical complaints were regularly trivialized and disbelieved—not, usually, out of sadism, but out of fatigue and indifference in the face of so much need. Indeed, by 2006, the Federal Receiver overseeing the prison medical system and the Special Master overseeing the mental health system reported that overcrowding was impeding their ability to effectuate change, and Gov. Schwarzenegger proclaimed a state prison crowding emergency. The link between the severe overcrowding and the conditions of the prison medical system was an important step toward the resolution of Plata. The PLRA, under which incarcerated people and their advocates sought relief, places numerous hurdles on prison rights litigation in general, and on population reduction orders in particular; such orders may be entered only by a three-judge district court, after the panel ascertains that prior attempts to alleviate prison conditions have failed to bring prison conditions into compliance with constitutional requirements, that overcrowding is the primary cause of the violation, and that no other relief will remedy the conditions.
The Era of Plata: Recession-Era Reforms and Their Limitations
The late 2000s were years of transformation not only in California, but nationwide, due to a confluence of events. The advent of the 2008 financial crisis plunged state and local governments into a deep recession, which awakened interest in local budgets, of which correctional expenditures were a considerable share. The realization that incarceration on such a scale was financially unsustainable created the opportunity for bipartisan coalitions at the state and federal levels, dovetailing with the Obama Administration’s focus on criminal justice reform and racial justice. Part and parcel of these coalition-building efforts was the need to focus the proposed reforms on low-hanging fruit, in the form of politically palatable populations, such as nonviolent drug offenders, which received the bulk of reformist attention both from the right and the left.
Against this backdrop, the litigation in Plata hurtled forward, and the PLRA conditions for population reduction were finally met. In 2009, the three-judge panel found overcrowding to be the primary cause of the health care system’s dysfunction and acknowledged that prior attempts to improve the situation had failed. Consequently, the panel ordered a reduction of California’s prison population to 137.5% of system-wide design capacity—admittedly, a drastic population cut that the state would continue to fight tooth and nail all the way to the Supreme Court—but shied away from specifying how the population reduction was to be done. Theoretically, the state could have built more prisons to alleviate overcrowding, but recession-era cuts impeded this course of action; another possibility, relying on private contractors, was blocked by conflicting political interests. In 2011, as Plata made its way to the Supreme Court, Gov. Brown continued the path charted by his predecessor, Gov. Schwarzenegger, and signed extensive legislation that many considered “the greatest experiment” in American corrections. Under the Criminal Justice Realignment, people convicted of “non-non-non” offenses—nonviolent, nonsexual, nonserious—would serve their sentence in county jails, rather than in state prisons. This would internalize the costs of incarceration and eliminate the problem that several scholars have referred to as the “correctional free lunch”: prosecutors asking for, and judges meting out, lengthy prison sentences in county courts, oblivious to the “price tag”—the costs of incarceration, which would be borne by state agencies. Judges were given more discretion regarding sentencing, to alleviate incarceration and, in most cases, the state system’s parole supervision functions were transferred to community probation offices, which would now handle both probation (a sanction, typically viewed as an alternative to incarceration) and parole (post-incarceration supervision).
From State to Counties
The implementation of Realignment meant that tens of thousands of people, who were under the auspices (and financial responsibility) of the state, would now be housed, clothed, and fed at the county level. Many scholars and policymakers who welcomed this jurisdictional shift thought that counties would be better positioned to connect people with rehabilitation and reentry services because of their stronger ties to the home communities of incarcerated people, and that healthcare at the state level was so dire that the counties would surely do better.
But the assumption that jails would be an improvement neglected to consider several factors. The first of these, which law professor Margo Schlanger referred to as the “hydra problem,” was concern about the impact that a decentralized health care system would create, making it more difficult to monitor and implement improvement: i.e., rather than following the health care instructions and practices in one jurisdiction (the state), prison rights advocates would now have to obtain information about conditions and mismanagement in each of the counties as well, and possibly begin new, separate litigation efforts against each county. In addition, there were the inherent limitations of county facilities. Jails, originally built to house people only for short terms (pretrial or for less than a year), were ill-equipped to deal with a population in need of both acute and chronic healthcare. The extent to which counties proved equal to the task varied greatly: while some counties made efforts to prevent incarceration well ahead of the anticipated legislation and court decisions, others, in panic, started building jails or changing revenue structures to roll expenses onto the inmates themselves. Such structure include “pay to stay” jails, in which people pay for their own incarceration (as if they were staying in a hotel) through liens on their post-incarceration earnings, or more opaque practices: monetizing and charging for haircuts, food, and some healthcare services. The gaps in implementation were also reflected in divergent reliance on incarceration among judges in different counties. These divergent patterns were unfortunately exacerbated by the formula for funding the newly burdened county systems, which was initially based on the counties’ respective incarceration rates; this funding mechanism rewarded counties that relied more on incarceration and penalized those who developed alternatives to it, disincentivizing courts, sheriff’s departments, and probation services from investing more in non-carceral options.
Bifurcation and the Violent/Nonviolent Dichotomy
Related to the “hydra problem” was the fact that the new sentencing and jurisdictional rules applied only to the “non-non-nons,” which were considered an easier “sell” from a public appeal perspective. Realignment was not unique in that respect. Generally speaking, recession-era reforms were characterized by a bifurcation element: they applied to nonviolent offenders and retrenched negative public opinion about so-called violent offenders.
This distinction was based on several empirically unfounded myths, the first of which was that the American correctional predicament was due mostly to the incarceration of non-level offenders. In fact, drug offenders—the recipients of bipartisan sympathies, and justifiably so given the racial disparities in drug enforcement—have constantly been no more than a fourth of the state prison population nationwide, whereas people convicted of “violent” offenses constituted a majority of those in state prisons. In California, especially after the legislative changes in 2011 and 2014, three quarters of the prison population are people convicted of “violent” crimes. A related myth was the perception that violent offenders posed a greater risk to public safety—which, when empirically tested, proved to be untrue. In California, specifically, the focus on the crime of conviction led the legal system to ignore a fourth of the prison population—the people serving the state’s three most extreme sentence: incarceration on death row, life without parole, and life with parole. Because of the rarity of executions in California and the rarity of release on parole, these three punishments merged into an “extreme punishment trifecta,” consisting of decades behind bars. Greatly overlapping with this category were prisoners aged fifty and above who, as a consequence of serving extremely lengthy sentences, had not only aged out of crime, but also incurred disabilities and chronic health conditions. Well-meaning reforms, therefore, calcified public opinion against the people who were wrongly perceived, because of their crime of commitment, to pose risks to public safety while, at the same time, facing increased risks to their own health because of their age and the prison conditions they have endured during their lengthy sentences. California’s aforementioned political culture tends to emotional arguments building on heinous (albeit very rare) violent crimes, and public opinion has been remarkably resistant to the idea of distinguishing between, and extending compassion to, people convicted of violent crimes.
System-Wide Population Reduction
Another well-meaning aspect of the Plata reforms was that the court order required a population reduction in the system as a whole, rather than per individual institution. Part of the vagueness of the order was due to the already-extreme measure of relying on the PLRA to require an enormous state-wide effort. However, the choice of litigation strategy also mattered. By contrast to European and international standards, which measure humane incarceration standards based on a minimal square area per prisoner, the order in California did not go so far as to ensure that each inmate would have adequate space—only that the average inmate in the entire system would. For years after the Plata decision, there was considerable variety in the occupation rates of state prisons, with some prisons still at pre-Plata capacity while others were at capacity or even slightly below. The impact of the decision, therefore, was not inclusive of all inmates.
Crisis and Mismanagement
Against the backdrop of these vulnerabilities—fragmented correctional institutions, rising to divergent standards and accountable to different local governments, a legacy of challenges providing minimal healthcare, uneven occupancy rates, and the perception that public opinion is dead-set against the releases of violent prisoners—came the triggers: the pandemic and a few crucial mismanagement steps by CDCR and by county jails. Some of these problems are evident from CDCR’s own tracking tool, but some we know about only from journalistic exposés—especially the ones pertaining to local jails. As of July 13, CDCR has tested 43.4% of its prison population, but testing rates have widely ranged between institutions. In the first two weeks of July, 55% of the California Correctional Center population was tested, but only 2% of the Kern Valley State Prison were tested, and percentages of tests ranges from 97% at Amador to 11.4% at Chuckawalla. More than half of San Quentin’s population tested positive, with nine deaths since mid-July, most of them being individuals on death row. Bizarrely, if death row isolation, where people are housed in single-occupancy cells, is not sufficient protection from contagion, it is unclear where and how the prison can prevent contagion through social distancing.
The contagion on death row raises unique issues. In 2019, after decades in which the state had sentenced people to death only to see them languish for decades on death row, waiting for legal representation to enable them postconviction litigation, Gov. Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty. During these decades—and even now, because the death penalty is still on the books—the state has spent billions of dollars “tinkering with the machinery of death” by litigating minute technicalities of executions, such as the type and number of drugs to be injected. Extensive appellate proceedings have gotten into the minutiae of convicts’ physical and mental health, to ensure that they are healthy enough to be killed by the state. This endless technical litigation seems particularly absurd as hundreds of inmates may face a death sentence via COVID-19. Even those who might secretly harbor the thought that such a sentence on death row might be appropriate would be surprised to know that capital trials are notoriously arbitrary and inefficient, and do not effectively single out “the worst of the worst” for capital punishment. Even to the extent that it is possible to qualitatively differentiate between more or less heinous homicides (our Penal Code does so through lists of aggravating circumstances), who ends up on death row is not necessarily a function of the heinousness of the crime, but rather of the quality of the theatrical spectacle for the jury. The recent jury decision to sentence Joseph DeAngelo, the notorious “Golden State Killer,” to life without parole reflects the pragmatic realization that, with the death chamber dismantled, any meaning attached to a symbolic death sentence, as well as the costly expenditure of time and finances that will flow from postconviction litigation, is unnecessary.
An additional trigger is the mismanagement of transfers between institutions during the pandemic. Reportedly, the outbreak at San Quentin is a function of a botched transfer of prisoners from the California Institute of Men in Chino, the site of a serious (and now almost abated) contagion. The prisoners were not tested before being transferred. This scenario then replicated itself: prisoners from San Quentin, in turn, were transferred to the California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville and not tested or quarantined upon arrival, resulting in hundreds of cases, with the infection unabated as of mid-July. While another prison in Susanville, High Desert State Prison, has only seen four cases as of mid-July, testing rates there are remarkably low and it is overcrowded at 154% of its capacity, raising concerns about the possibility of preventing much worse outcomes through social distancing.
Beyond the concerns for people behind bars are the concerns for the effect of prison contagion on the surrounding communities. CDCR confirms 1,243 cases among its staff, 205 of which are at San Quentin. Comparing CDCR data about infections within the prison with the Los Angeles Times statistics for the neighboring counties shows a temporal link between the outbreak at San Quentin and the soaring number of cases in the surrounding community. Similarly, the spike in cases in Lassen County occurred after the outbreak at CCC. In both cases, without contact tracing, it is impossible to provide an airtight causal story; the temporal link, however, raises serious concerns that attempting to incubate the virus in prisons puts the entire community at risk.
The interplay between the prison and the community seems to have finally driven home the point that prisoners reside in the county in which the prison is located for the duration of their incarceration, whether or not they are (or should) being “counted” as such for purposes such as the US Census. Realizing that Lassen County people’s health depends, in part, on health outcomes inside Lassen County’s prisons, Brian and Megan Dahle, respectively a Senator and an Assembly Member for Lassen County’s First District wrote a letter to CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz asking him “to provide answers on questionable protocols that have led to a surge of inmate #COVID19 cases in Lassen County.” Reportedly, despite arguments about jurisdiction, the prison and county are finally working together to test the prison population. This collaboration is less likely to play out in Marin County, where the identity and livelihood of the community is less tied to its local prison than at Susanville, “Prison Town, U.S.A.”
The concerns about prison outbreaks, at this point, go beyond the extreme outbreaks at San Quentin, Avenal, CIM, and CCI. A careful look at the CDCR contagion data reveals several locations at which the status of contagion is still unclear given the lack of testing and the paucity of information about transfers—what Donald Rumsfeld referred to, in a different context, as the “known unknowns.” In some prisons, the outbreak seems to have reached its peak and abated; in others, it continues unabated. In some prisons, there have been new outbreaks after previous waves had seemingly abated. Some prisons have only a handful of cases; because these prisons, for the most part, have tested only a small percentage of their population, it is impossible to know whether contagion has been contained or the few cases are the beginning of a serious outbreak. And while several prisons have had no cases at all, it remains to be seen whether administrative blunders in the form of population transfers or insufficient staff protocols will introduce the virus into these institutions and their environs.
Finally, there is the matter of another “known unknown”: the situation in California’s county jails. As outbreaks were reported in several jails, notably at Alameda, San Bernardino, Riverside, Fresno, and Tulare counties, the respective Sheriff’s Departments did not provide statistics on infections and hospitalizations on their webpages. Indeed, UCLA’s new data collection project on COVID-19 in correctional institutions led by Sharon Dolovich impressively covers state and federal prisons, but only a handful of jails, because information has been so scant. The five-month delay in obtaining reliable statistics on county jail infections statewide is an important social fact, which undergirds Schlanger’s “hydra problem”: by contrast to CDCR, which provides an informative tracking tool, the fifty-nine counties have had different approaches as to reportage, and even those who report statistics do not do so in a uniform manner. Only as late as five months into the crisis, the Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) finally required county sheriffs to provide contagion statistics on jails. The resulting database offers partial information, with no historical or cumulative data. The gaps between official COVID-19 policies as listed on county sheriffs’ websites and the realities on the ground became a matter of public record when the Orange County Sheriff was sued for providing inadequate precautions. After the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Sheriff to enforce social distancing and provide the inmates with soap, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, stayed the injunction, thus temporarily relieving the Sheriff from these obligations. The decision was surprising, to say the least, because stays are not usually granted when the Supreme Court is unlikely to grant certiorari and reverse the decision on the merits; it was particularly surprising because there was ample proof of substantial harm to the jail population. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote:
Although the Jail had been warned that “social distancing is the cornerstone of reducing transmission of COVID–19,” inmates described being transported back and forth to the jail in crammed buses, socializing in dayrooms with no space to distance physically, lining up next to each other to wait for the phone, sleeping in bunk beds two to three feet apart, and even being ordered to stand closer than six feet apart when inmates tried to socially distance. Moreover, although the Jail told its inmates that they could “best protect” themselves by washing their hands with “soap and water throughout the day,” numerous inmates reported receiving just one small, hotel-sized bar of soap per week. And after symptomatic inmates were removed from their units, other inmates were ordered to dispose of their belongings without gloves or other protective equipment. Finally, despite the Jail’s stated policy to test and isolate individuals who reported or exhibited symptoms consistent with COVID-19, multiple symptomatic detainees described being denied tests, and others recounted sharing common spaces with infected or symptomatic inmates.
Beyond the distressing fact that the county preferred to spend its resources petitioning the Supreme Court for a stay, rather than providing its jail population with adequate amounts of soap, the case raises concerns about the situation in other jails. While it is impossible to make definitive extrapolations from the Orange County example, the divergence between the jail’s “health and safety” protocols per its website and the practices on the ground as reported by the jail populations suggest that the official policies are no assurance that people serving short sentences—and people who are in pretrial detention, and thus presumed innocent—are receiving adequate protections from infection.
The Proposed Solution: Case-by-Case Releases of Non-Non-Nons?
On July 10, a day after activists and elected officials held a press conference before the San Quentin gate, Gov. Newsom announced impending releases of 8,000 people. In the heels of his announcement, CDCR issued a press release detailing the plan. The plan closely resembles the strategies adopted in 2011 and 2014 to trim the prison population: it focuses on the relatively less controversial moves of hastening the release dates of people sentenced for nonviolent crimes who are nearing the end of their sentences. More particularly, the plan consists of the following steps:
Release 4,800 people with 180 days left on their sentences, who are not serving time for violence or domestic violence, nor are to register as sex offenders.
Release an undetermined number of people with a year left on their sentence for a nonviolent, nonsex crime, who are incarcerated at an outbreak epicenter: San Quentin State Prison (SQ), Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF), California Health Care Facility (CHCF), California Institution for Men (CIM), California Institution for Women (CIW), California Medical Facility (CMF), Folsom State Prison (FOL) and Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD). Those aged 30 and over are immediately eligible; younger people will be reviewed case-by-case by CDCR.
A 12-week programming credit (hastening the date of release) to all those not on death row or serving life without parole who don’t have a serious violation on their record since March 1. “Serious rules violations” while in prison range from murder to possession of a cellphone. This category of those who have no serious violations since March 1 encompasses 108,000 people, out of which 2,100 would advance to the point of being eligible for release between July and September.
Case-by-case assessment for release of people aged over 65 with a chronic medical condition or with respiratory illnesses, who have been assessed as low risk for violence and who are not on death row, serving life without parole, or high-risk sex offenders.
Individual assessment for release of people in hospice or pregnant, as well as expediting release for people who have been granted parole (including the governor’s approval.)
The plan, regardless of its particulars, is an important first step. For the individuals who will be released, the plan could spell relief from illness and death; the gradual release schedule, albeit not ideal from a pandemic prevention perspective, offers a silver lining that might allow some people to better plan their future on the outside, especially against the backdrop of a terrible economy. Nonetheless, it is woefully insufficient to stop the virus in its tracks, for four reasons: it is too modest, too late, too reactive, and too restrictive.
First, the overall number is far too modest. 8,000 releases—a mere 6% of the current prison population of approximately 125,000—would not allow prison healthcare officials to institute appropriate social distancing measures. In some institutions, the need to release massive numbers of people is even more pressing. In mid-June, a team of physicians specializing in prison healthcare published a report about a site visit to San Quentin, in which they recommended that, due to San Quentin’s age and decrepitude, the population there specifically be reduced to 50% of current capacity. Many of the problems are not endemic to San Quentin: according to the July 8 population count, 26 facilities—24 for men, 2 for women—are overcrowded beyond design capacity. Nine facilities are overcrowded above the 137.5% Plata standard (had the standard been applied to individual prisons, rather than systemwide), and ten more are overcrowded above 120% of their design capacity. Under these conditions, releasing a total of 8,000 people will not even nearly allow the kind of social distancing necessary to halt pandemic spread.
Second, the plan relies heavily on individualized, case-by-case evaluations. The time to take such careful measures has long passed; for months, criminal justice scholars issued warnings of prison contagion, to no avail. Given the spread of the epidemic, CDCR must resort to triage measures, which approach people in broader categories of age and risk.
Third, the plan is reactive to the point of being already dated at its publication. The list of prisons that CDCR prioritizes for releases, published on June 10, already overlooked new outbreaks at several prisons. Moreover, the plan excluded places in which the pandemic had seemingly abated, even though testing levels were partial and unsatisfactory, and did not provide a true sense of pandemic activity. The prisons listed in the press release already are already ravaged by a robust outbreak, and releasing vigorously from those particular locations, while helpful in terms of treating people, would not help with prevention.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the plan’s restrictions on categories for release echoes previous efforts to curb unfounded public backlash at the expense of actual facts and public health. The release plan targets, yet again, a version of the “non-non-nons”: nonserious, nonviolent, nonsexual offenders. Before and after the 2011 and 2014 releases, prison scholars in California and elsewhere conducted robust research on risk assessment and have concluded time and again that there is no correlation between the crime of commitment and the risk to public safety.
The choice to focus, yet again, on “non-non-nons” is particularly worrisome in the current crisis because it stubbornly evades addressing the most obvious category of people for release: people who have been serving lengthy sentences for violent crimes committed decades ago. As robust literature on life-course criminology shows, people age out of violent street crime by their mid- to late-twenties, and by the time they are fifty years old, pose virtually no public safety risk; indeed, parole officers repeatedly express a preference for working with former lifers because they are such a low-risk population. This category, which constitutes a quarter of the prison population, is an ideal target for release: they do not pose significant risk to public safety and, at the same time, they face enhanced risk to their own health and, by extension—if the virus is incubated in the prisons—to the health of others if they remain incarcerated.
It is hard to contemplate the grim picture in California’s prisons and not feel frustration with the lack of progress since John Howard indicted prisons of being incubators of disease in 1777. Whether the COVID-19 crisis in California prisons can be attributed to “cruelty” or “inattention,” a question that did not matter to the horrified Howard, is one that might matter in litigation, but at this point it suffices to say that much of it was preventable and foreseeable. The well-meaning champions of Plata can hardly be blamed for seeking a remedy that seemed, at the time, to address a systemic ill; but against the backdrop of prison conditions and of the limitations of the Plata remedy, state authorities should have acted as early as March to release people from prison and alleviate overcrowding, particularly in antiquated, decrepit facilities. The late and tepid reaction in July reverts to our state’s characteristic approach to crime and punishment. California’s populistic, polarized political culture has led elected officials, time after time, to seek solutions that raise as little controversy as possible—and time after time, such solutions have proven inefficient. This time, too, officials might be hoping that, by cobbling together palatable candidates for release, the numbers will somehow add up to sufficient prevention. Unfortunately, they won’t.
The Governor must make use of the many “levers” that open prison doors at his disposal. In a universe of moratorium, it is not beyond imagination to commute all death sentences, and all life without parole sentences, to life with parole, and speed early release policies, commutations, parole hearings, and resentencing. It is imperative to let go of concerns about the optics of releasing people who, decades ago, were sentenced for violent crime, and to follow risk assessments that prioritize aging and failing health.
It is equally essential to make a concerted effort to dramatically ramp up testing, so as to test as close to 100% of the prison population as possible. The muddled picture of infection needs to clear up considerably before the points of contact between prisons and the community can accurately be pinpointed and further transfer fiascos avoided. For a voluntary testing program to be effective, it is crucial to communicate that no retaliatory or negative consequences will stem from testing positive—and that includes refraining from the use of death row and solitary confinement cells, which carry terrifying connotations, for the purpose of medical isolation.
Prison authorities must also exercise extreme caution when transferring people between facilities. No transfers must be made to institutions that have no active cases. Similarly, messaging and instructions to staff must take into account their crucial role in prevention.
Finally, county jails are a hidden but important dimension of the COVID-19 challenge. Counties must liaise with CDCR and install matching tracking tools for each county jail.
Where the blame lies, and whether it is cruelty or inattention, matters less than the pressing need to overcome this crisis; mostly, it is paramount to understand that prisons are not separate from the communities in which they are located. Prisons are part of the community, and prisoners are members of the community, and prevention strategies must see them as such.
 John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with an Account of Some Foreign Prisons (1977), cited in Andrew Barrett and Chris Harrison, eds., Crime and Punishment in England: A Sourcebook (London: UCL Press, 1999), 173.
 Public Safety Realignment Act (AB 109) (2011).
 California Proposition 47, the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative (approved Nov. 2014).
 Vanessa Barker, The Politics of Imprisonment How the Democratic Process Shapes the Way America Punishes Offenders (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
 California’s culture can also be seen as somewhat overlapping the punitive politics of what Mona Lynch refers to as the “sunbelt: Mona Lynch, Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009. It alsoshares some characteristics with Florida’s culture: Heather Schoenfeld, Building the Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).
 Hadar Aviram, Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020).
 Joshua Page, The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010). For a critique of Alexander’s excessive focus on drug crimes, see James Forman, “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow,” New York University Law Review 87/101-150 (2012).
 Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, The Scale of Imprisonment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 211; W. David Ball, “Defunding State Prisons,” Criminal Law Bulletin 50 (2014): 1060-1089.
 Margo Schlanger, “Plata v. Brown and Realignment: Jails, Prisons, Courts, and Politics,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 481 (2013): 165-215.
 David Ball, “Tough on Crime (on the State’s Dime): How Violent Crime Does Not Drive California Counties’ Incarceration Rates—And Why it Should,” Georgia State L. Rev. 28 (2012): 987-1084.
 John Pfaff, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform (New York: Basic Books, 2017). The only setting in which this is not true is the federal prison population, which is approximately one tenth of the national prison population.
 Holly Cartner, Prison Conditions in Romania, Human Rights Watch (1992), 8. Eric Goldstein, Prison Conditions in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, Human Rights Watch (1991), 29.
 Cassidy and Fagone, “Coronavirus Tears Through San Quentin’s Death Row.”
 Hadar Aviram and Ryan S. Newby, “Death Row Economics: The Rise of Fiscally Prudent Anti-Death-Penalty Activism,” Criminal Justice 28 (2013): 33-41.
 Sarah Beth Kaufman, American Roulette: The Social Logic of Death Penalty Sentencing Trials (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020); Paul Kaplan, Murder Stories: Ideological Narratives in Capital Punishment (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books), 2012.
 For a summary of this body of literature see Susan Turner, “Moving California Corrections from an Offense- to Risk-Based System.”
 Robert Sampson and John Laub, “Life-Course Desisters? Trajectories of Crime Among Delinquent Boys Followed to Age 70,” Criminology 41 (2003): 555-592.
Caitlin V. M. Cornelius, Christopher J. Lynch, and Ross Gore, “Aging Out of Crime: Exploring the Relationship between Age and Crime with Agent-Based Modeling,” Society for Modeling and Simulation International, 2017.
 Heather Harris, et al., “California’s Prison Population.”
 See the physicians’ caveat about this regrettable practice in McCoy et al., “Urgent Memo – COVID-19 Outbreak: San Quentin Prison.”
Hadar Aviram is Professor of Law at UC Hastings and a frequent media commentator on politics, criminal justice policy, and civil rights. She is author of Cheap on Crime: Recession-Era Politics and the Transformation of American Punishment (UC Press, 2015) and Yesterday’s Monsters: The Manson Family Cases and the Illusion of Parole (UC Press, 2020) and her blog, California Correctional Crisis, covers criminal justice policy in California. She served as President of the Western Society of Criminology and on the Board of Trustees of the Law and Society Association, and is currently the Book Review Editor of the Law & Society Review.
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.
I. The Battle of Chester Avenue
We gather south of Chester Avenue’s railroad tracks. Air murmurs with violence. Everyone’s hungry for the blood of what’s taken place, a battle between freight train and car. We gaze at the aftermath. A hellscape. A nightmare. A car mangled in near darkness a few dozen yards from where Dad often takes us for burgers. A&W Root Beer. This is the periphery of how far me and my siblings are allowed to wander from our home on Geneva Avenue.
We heard the crash from our living rooms and front yards and now the community mobs the street. Years later I think this must have been what watching the Civil War was like: a community coming together to observe the collision of gunpowder, steel and flesh. Only, this is our poor man’s take. The barrio version. The working class.
It will be decades before I have any kind of worldview or identity. This is the summer of ‘77. California’s Central Valley. South Bakersfield. A few months before a gargantuan dust storm swallows everything.
Our mixed community as a whole doesn’t seem conscious of itself. Not tonight as we fume and buzz over the train wreck.
I’m small in the crowd. A thing. A feeling. A spore. A lost boy, decades from his struggle to fight political and social forces much greater than this metaphor of rails and blood. Before all the immigration reform marches and rallies. I’m in fourth grade. I don’t realize I’m fighting against this train. It’s smashing into my identity every day, the same way it barrels through Russian thistle and ghosts of. I’m not aware of my hopelessness. I don’t realize I’m the car. I only know I’m here. I want to see the remains of this disaster.
The police won’t allow anyone near the tracks. Not unless you’re a firefighter or detective. From the driver’s seat of our van, Dad, a self-professed ex-Bay Area cop watches the scene with a kind of calm. A vato with a mission. Somehow wanting to teach his kids that our world is violent, mercurial, dangerous. He seems attracted to the pull of violence, like he has to be in the middle of it. And since my brother, sister and I feel safe around him, we’re eager as we slowly park alongside this mass of bodies that fills this usually busy thoroughfare.
The freight train sprawls across Chester Avenue in semi-darkness. The car twisted and smashed against its engine. Detectives hunt with flashlights further down the tracks.
Parents, teenagers, and kids have congregated. What makes this crowd special is all the forgotten hate between neighbors. These people live next door to each other but never talk. They secretly throw rocks at each other’s windows when they’re not home. All the bullies are here too. The ones who pick on me at school—friendly during this snapshot of violence. All making up stories as fast as their mouths can yammer. They want to be heard. Even if only a half peckerwood like me is listening.
Necks crane to see what might happen next, whether ghosts might rise from rocks and dirt. Whether bodies might slip out of the mangled car and stumble herky-jerk down the rails.
“They’re looking for a hand,” says Ruben, a bully with a mouth scar that looks like his lips had once been sewed together.
Other rumors fly like bats. The train smashed into the car on purpose. The car flew across the tracks on a dare. A semi pushed the car into the train. Black, white, Japanese-American, Mexican-American—doesn’t matter who makes up each conspiracy. This could have been a meteor strike or space alien invasion and these people would have banded together to talk shit like it really happened. This is something I’ve never seen in the neighborhood. Something I will never see again except at South High School football games when families from the projects and low-income housing come to root on their racist mascots made in the image of Confederate militants. It’s insane if you think about it: Confederate imagery in the mixed-race neighborhoods of South Bakersfield.
The Belardes family in the 1970s. Photograph courtesy of author.
II. A White Mythology
Confederate and Civil War imagery surround me. It’s 1982. I’m fourteen, a freshman at South High School. Home of the Rebels. The Blue & Gray. The Merrimac Yearbook. Johnny and Jody yell leaders in military-style grey uniforms and Confederate hats. Our mascot is a cartoon Confederate soldier. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. I don’t understand racism, slavery, war, who fought what or when, and for what cause. I’m so caught up in our school spirit I pin a tiny Confederate flag to a Confederate soldier hat my Mexican-American dad brings home from a swapmeet. He thinks it’s cool. I think this is what high school is all about. Rebel soldiers. Like Star Wars. Like The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t realize a cartoon mascot is a symbol for retaining an economic system that allows for the horrific right to own slaves. I somehow think I’m one of the good guys.
Street names around South High are all Civil War-inspired. Sumter, Merrimac, Monitor, Rebel, Raider, Evelyn. Evelyn might be Evelyn Magruder DeJarnette, a white nineteenth-century writer. She taught slave kids on a Virginia plantation. She culturally appropriated them by writing stories in slave dialect. Her husband was a captain for the Confederate Army, a farmer who owned slaves.
Take a turn down White (Supremacist) Lane onto Monitor Street and you’ll reach Plantation Avenue. An elementary school by the same name still stands there (So do the street names).
III. The Gridiron Race Riot
Sometime between 1984 and 1986 I’m in the stands above our school’s sunken gridiron battlefield for a matchup between North and South high schools. I’m tossing confetti, chanting cheers. I’m really into it when both football teams transform gridiron to full-on mob violence. Karate jump-kicks. Flying fists. Helmets swung like morning stars. A football coach gets smacked with a clipboard. Students and parents run from the stands. Not to break up the fight but to join in. If ever there’s a melee fueled by racism this is it, our twisted fabrication of North versus South. On one side, South High—empowered with its white mythology, though a mixed race school. On the other, North High, embedded in a mostly white community called Oildale, firmly empowered with its own white superiority complex and racist intentions.
While this is a mixed-race school versus a white school, I suspect South High football players of color had images in their heads of being shot if they enter the wrong side of town, of crosses burning in yards, of kids getting lynched outside the dirt-floor shanties of Oildale, California. This is the fear fed to us about the northern suburbs of Bakersfield. If you’re brown, you stay out of that town.
I can only imagine what’s been said on the field, what parents of either team have been feeding the minds of their children. Decades later a Black former South High football star tells me the n-word had been dropped regularly by North High’s feeder teams in years prior during peewee games. “We knew the level of hatred against our melting pot of a school,” he said. “That [North-South] game had been eagerly anticipated.”
IV. A Racism Origin Story
By the time Dad moves us to Geneva Avenue in 1976, the area is fairly mixed: Black, Mexican-American, Japanese-American, white. A wave of Vietnamese immigrants is on the way.
Our neighbors are Mexican-American on one side and white on the other. After the Mexican-American couple moves out, a Black man moves in. Dad doesn’t use that word when referencing him. He uses the n-word. There’s a clear hatred from my old man. Our neighbor avoids Dad, avoids all of us. You can see it in how quickly he enters his house, how he’s never outside, never greeting us. We never have a conversation in the four or five years we share the neighborhood.
I always wonder if Dad had ever really been a cop. In 2019, two decades after his death, one of my uncles says Dad’s cop stories were lies. I’d already seen photos of him in a uniform. Then a retired cop checking in to see if former academy members had died, phoned. Dad’s name had been on a list. Dad had definitely enrolled at the San Jose Police Academy in the 1960s. One of the first Latinos there, no less. Proof that he hung out with and had been influenced by powerful white men.
But had he been an actual cop?
And if he had been a cop, why hadn’t he stuck with it? One family member said he couldn’t pass the height requirements at the time. Maybe he didn’t want some low-paying security gig as a result. That wasted police education maybe not only put that killer look in his eye, perhaps it transformed him into the assimilationist he was.
That means I was assimilated. No Spanish was taught in the home. Dad constantly told me I was white. He bought Confederate flags for my bedroom wall. Mostly American foods were put on the dinner table. Racist epithets were used in conversation and jokes. “Chicano” was never uttered.
Truth is, we’re a dual-ethnic family in our south Bakersfield neighborhood during those mid 1970s and early 1980s. The streets are rough for me as a result. Neighborhood fights get fueled by kids with giant boy egos and petty racial differences. More than a few punches get thrown. I usually just receive them. Terrified, I stand my ground, take some licks, never really understanding why fists matter. I toss a lunchpail at one kid’s head who fights my brother over us “peckerwoods” being in their hood. I’m too stupid to argue that I’m Mexican-American, Latino, or Hispanic. I think I’m white though my father’s brown as an oak-stained table. I run for my life. I hide in my room. I’m afraid of black vampires outside my window.
Dad just wants me to fight. He’s bragged for years that he was a cop. I want him to be a cop, my cop. But he doesn’t help or show me how to fight. He orders me to “straighten up,” to “be tough” with those n-word boys down the street. He talks tough, but what else is he? A brown cowboy? Some white image he’s pulled from American cinema? He loves John Wayne, Charles Bronson. He worships Dirty Harry, Billy Jack. Blazing Saddles. He wears a black cowboy hat. He drives a tanker truck hauling gas for an oil company. I later refer to him as mothertrucker. He carries a gun in a shoulder holster. He buys me and my brother cowboy hats and boots. He wants us to be him. He wants us to be what he isn’t.
V. Yell Leaders, Mascots and Monuments
Johnny and Jody Rebel stand on podiums on the edge of a stadium racetrack. All eyes on them in their Confederate uniforms as they lead cheers. It’s 1986. Johnny is a Mexican-American kid named Gabe. Jody is a Black girl named Georgia. Together they upend the image of the Confederate South. At the same time, they become a mockery, performing a bizarre cultural appropriation of oppressive white heritage that transforms students into puppetry. An entire mythology has been reproduced on the backs of Black and Mexican-American children. In this white thuggish military garb that literally screams enslavement, kids are transformed. They lose self-identity in the supremacist imagery before the crowd. They’re reduced to monuments. Symbols of a war meant to oppress, that sought to continue a way of life that made Southern planters wealthy.
The Confederate flag once flew over South High School. It was banned in 1968, the year I was born. No Confederate imagery is retired during my education there. Not the school mascot. Not the rebel military uniforms on yell leaders. Not the street names. Not the school names. Not even Plantation Elementary School.
Killing a flag wasn’t ever going to erase its shadowy image of oppression. Not with all the blue and grey. Not with all the misplaced school pride placed upon so many high school kids screaming rebel chants. A school’s fanatical pride isn’t unlike Southerner pride suggesting that times have changed when they haven’t.
Author, second to the right, marching.
On March 30, 2006, students from Bakersfield area high schools, including South High pour into downtown. I’m documenting the march for my blog wishing I’d been one of these high school kids as their throng enters a wide plaza outside the Rabobank Arena and Civic Auditorium.
Part of me is ashamed. Not for the kids. For me. But I don’t have time to reflect on South High, why it’s still seeped in Confederate mythology, or why my past haunts me. Right now it’s just me and a KERO news crew. We’re the only ones documenting this historic moment akin to the 1968 East L.A. blowout.
Then a car speeds alongside the curb. Out jumps Kern County’s controversial District Attorney Ed Jagels, mastermind of 25 false convictions during the Satanic Panic. Well-known for his ridiculous media posturing, he plants his face in his hands in mock desperation, as if the kids now swarming the plaza are about to climb the battlements and lay siege to a fountain.
A few days later I’m at Jastro Park documenting another rally alongside an AP news photographer. We’re on the same stage as Dolores Huerta. An ocean of red farm worker flags wave in front of her as she she dances with CSU Bakersfield professor Gonzalo Santos during a ranchera melody. I’m pulled into this. I’m feeling this intersection between farm workers, immigrant rights and the Chicano Movement. There’s something here I need to fight for.
By May 1st I’m taking part as an honored poet, hands shaking on stage at Beach Park, reading “Immigration! Interrogation!” to a sea of 10,000-15,000. It doesn’t enter my mind to think, Here I am, former South High Student on stage! Not at all. By this time, South High is lost to me, a place that should have corrected itself long ago. I take no pride in my connections to that institution, only shame. If anything, I close my eyes and see my street, Geneva Avenue. I see the paths I walked to school. I see the dirt fields and hear the train crashing over and over again.
Eleven years later it’s May 1, 2017. I text my youngest son Landen to see if he’ll come to Mill Creek Park to listen to me present, “The Mother of All Bombs,” a poem less about Donald Trump’s propaganda war machine, and more a revelation about ironies of oppression, the anger that is connected to it in relation to the southern Central Valley. I realize that one portion of the lengthy poem feels so much like it’s from where I grew up in South Bakersfield. Though about the oppression of place, I’ve generalized my own streets. I’ve hidden my old school, my old haunts, even my old living room on Geneva, with Dad inside telling me how white I am.
The Mother of All Bombs is the woman down the street laughing at my words then waking up tomorrow realizing she’s felt the heavy weight of America too. How long did it take her to understand she’d taken on the characteristics of the oppressor, that she was insane, drooling with madness in the Church of Intolerance, while her own children were hungrier than ours under the continued shame of Make America Great Again, which here in the San Joaquin Valley is a new special blend of McCarthyism.
After a long line of us march downtown, those of us who carried the American flag walk onto the stage. Music blasts from speakers. Some start dancing. I gaze into the crowd and see my son. I feel a pride I can’t explain. A connecting point. A circle re-attached. Landen and I were part of that march nearly eleven years before. He’d walked out with all those high school kids in 2006. We’d both later attended President Obama’s speech at La Paz, a historic dedication of Cesar Chavez’ resting place as a National Monument.
Prior to, and after that day in 2017, my son and I continue to share father-son discussions about art, words, music, taking risks, about not being afraid to make a statement about the world, and to the world. He’s often working on songs and sends rough cuts. Sometimes we call each other afterwards, talking about his latest lyrics, drum beats and guitar riffs. As we often do, we shift our focus to peoples and behaviors, to speaking up for others, to ways in which we can inject a more purposeful truth into our art. Inevitably, during these moments, I drift. Sometimes for only a second. That’s all it takes. The place is usually the same. I’m back in that old living room on Geneva Avenue. I see Dad’s face but I don’t hear anything as he talks to me. I see his eyes. I see that grim mouth. And I see change coming.
Nicholas Belardes’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in Latino Rebels, The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, and others. Read more at nicholasbelardes.com. Follow him on twitter @nickbelardes
The rampant spread of coronavirus throughout the United States has illuminated undocumented migrants’ role as essential workers as well as their precarious position in this country. Indeed, Trump’s administration continues to find novel measures to expel undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, Adam Goodman traces the United States’ efforts to expel and terrorize migrants as well as people’s efforts to stop the deportation machine. Historian Elliott Young spoke with Goodman about his new book and this long history.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Elliott Young (EY): What led you to this particular book project and how do you think it responds to the present immigration crisis?
Adam Goodman (AG): My interest in immigration started to deepen when I was living and teaching high school on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Seeing the ways that migration policies shaped both the region and the lives of my students and their families piqued my interest in learning more about migration history. When I got to graduate school, the historiography and the literature really captured my imagination. That was at the start of Obama’s first term, when there was a lot of attention on his immigration enforcement actions. The issues that have dominated news headlines in recent years are not unique to Trump and they didn’t start with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton either; the origins of the deportation machine date back to the late nineteenth century.
EY: One of the big arguments you make in your book is that we need to consider all forms of deportation. That term deportation is used colloquially, but as you show the immigration bureaucracy divides these up into what are “voluntary returns” and so-called self-deportations where conditions are such that people are pushed out, along with formal removals that are done through a legal process. What kinds of insights does this more holistic view of these forms of deportation provide?
AG: Having this broader understanding of deportation sheds light on expulsion’s importance throughout the twentieth century, the fashioning of state power, and how deportation—or the possibility of being deported—shapes people’s lives. It also shifts the chronology. Deportation isn’t something that just emerges after the Immigration Act of 1996, which led to a spike in formal deportations, or after 9/11. There are a tremendous number of people who have been removed through formal deportations—8 million or so throughout US history. (The vast majority during the past 25 years.) But there are 48 million people who have been deported via voluntary departure, and an uncountable number of others who have left in response to self-deportation campaigns. So, if we want to understand the history of deportation, we need to expand our time frame and look at how 85-90% of the expulsions throughout U.S. history have happened. Which, in turn, reveals that Mexicans have been even more disproportionately targeted than we thought.
EY: Given that so many scholars start by looking at formal deportations to make the argument that everything changes in the 1980s and beyond, what do you think the qualitative differences are between the informal or voluntary returns versus the formal and legal deportations?
AG: It’s important to distinguish and delineate the different types of expulsion. I argue that we shouldn’t conflate them, but should instead understand how they work in conjunction with one another, because that’s how the deportation machine functions. Formal deportations, historically, have carried more severe penalties and consequences, including bans on re-entry of five, ten or twenty years, or sometimes even lifetime bans. You also might have to spend an extended or indefinite period of time in detention. Many people recognized that’s not a very appealing option and immigration authorities used the threat of bans on re-entry and of indefinite detention to coerce people into accepting administrative removals via voluntary departure. In the book, I equate this to the role plea bargains play in the criminal justice system. If officials threaten someone with 25 years in prison, they might take a plea for four years to mitigate the risk. It’s somewhat similar as to why someone would accept voluntary departure. I recognize the important difference between types of expulsion, while also arguing that voluntary departures have been punitive in nature. They weren’t simply part of a nod-and-wink system in which immigration authorities let people come and go in a pattern of circular migration while employers were able to maintain a cheap exploitable supply of workers. The stereotype of Mexicans as “illegal aliens” has been created, in part, through repeated apprehension and deportation via voluntary departure.
EY: Why does the government turn to the tactic of voluntary removal in the early twentieth century?
AG: Immigration officials never had the resources they needed to carry out the enforcement actions that Congress charged them with implementing. At different moments officials wanted to apprehend and deport more people, but they didn’t have the resources to do so. Congress wasn’t willing to provide them, and perhaps the United States public didn’t have the stomach for such actions either. This led to voluntary departures and informal means to deport people, which depended on giving discretion to low level immigration authorities who, within the system as a whole, had very little power, but had complete or near total power over any one individual migrant. That’s largely still the same today.
Activist and organizer José Jacques Medina speaks to a crowd of more than 200 people at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles, March 1977, Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
EY: You show in the book how the well-publicized workplace raids and other kinds of raids that happened in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s are calculated campaigns that sowed fear and terror in immigrant communities to provoke them to “self-deport.” Do you think the workplace raids in recent years are done for the same purpose? In other words, are these principally propaganda campaigns to instill fear in immigrant communities?
AG: This administration has ratcheted up the fear campaigns and is doing everything it can to instill fear in immigrant communities. That’s happening through public proclamations by officials; it’s happening by leaking things to the press and carefully placing stories; it’s happening by relying on an extensive network of restrictionist think tanks and policy groups that promote an anti-immigrant agenda within Washington in hopes of making it more mainstream. I should point out here that in spite of such self-deportations campaigns, the majority of people have stayed. When Trump took office there were an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Most of those people are still here. It’s important to recognize the way pervasive fear campaigns not only lead to self-deportation, but also affect and shape the lives of people who remain in the country.
EY: In one of your chapters, you describe the resistance by a group of shoe factory workers in South El Monte, right outside of Los Angeles. They refused to answer immigration agents’ questions and thereby blocked deportation efforts. This led to a lawsuit that in 1992 resulted in the recognition that immigrants are protected by certain elements of the Constitution and that immigration agents have to make immigrants aware of such rights when they’re being arrested. So, it’s a kind of success story in your book. But following that success story is a tremendous rise in the numbers of immigrants deported. I’m wondering whether legal strategies have been successful in protecting immigrants.
Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
AG: I’m interested in how people have endured, adapted, and fought against the machine. The chapter you’re referring to looks at the 1970s, in particular, what I call the dawn of the age of mass expulsion, when we see the number of deportations rise exponentially and reach 900,000-plus people per year (which continues until the end of the century). This was a different era. Building on the Chicano/a and civil rights movements, they took to the streets. They also took their fight to the courts, and the case of the shoe factory workers is an inspiring story because of how people organized. That was one of the key takeaways: It wasn’t individuals engaging in random acts of resistance, it was the joint efforts of immigrant workers, labor organizers, activists, and lawyers that threatened to bring the deportation machine to a halt. The deportation machine was vulnerable and it remains so today. Part of the job of undocumented immigrants and their allies is to identify how the machine works and where its points of vulnerability are, and to press on them.
EY: Is the trend we see since 2000 positive, in that we have a decreasing number of total deportations even though formal removals have increased significantly, reaching their height under President Obama? How do you interpret the last two decades of deportation history?
AG: How many people are deported each year matters, of course, but what also matters is how people are expelled and how the consequences of being deported have changed over time. What we see is that deportation has become more punitive and separation more permanent, because of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the explosion in enforcement funding, and the rise in formal deportations. I’m interested in the experiences of deportees and understanding things from their perspective. Simply looking at the number of expulsions and stopping there isn’t sufficient.
EY: I want to bring you to the point where historians never want to go, which is thinking about policy. You’ve talked about how deportations have been a bipartisan policy for more than a century. And, you argue that no particular party or president is responsible for the creation of this deportation machine, something I would definitely agree with. That being said, what kinds of immigration policies would you advocate? And do either the major political parties offer a way to turn the United States into a nation of immigrants, rather than a deportation nation as you described in your epilogue?
AG: The Trump administration has made immigration policy more partisan. Whereas Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress supported policies ramping up enforcement, today we see Democrats trying to stake out a different position. I’m a little skeptical about whether that will lead to real change; I’ll defer judgment. That being said, there are reforms that would solve a lot of the problems related to immigration policy. So much now is focused on national security and the needs of the nation, without reckoning with the fact that the migrants—the people these policies affect most—are very much a part of this nation. Allowing people to reunite with families, allowing people to come fill the country’s labor demands, creating more visa slots for Mexicans and doing away with the one-size-fits-all 20,000-person-per-year country quota are just some common sense proposals. Many people in the United States face real economic hardship, there’s no denying that. But scapegoating migrants is not the answer.
EY: The idea of prison abolition has been a powerful political way of conceptualizing the campaign against mass incarceration. I’m wondering if you think there should be a similar campaign to abolish immigration detention and deportation?
AG: Yes, and people are doing this work already. Groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) here in Chicago, the Detention Watch Network, and many others. A lot of community-based, grassroots organizations across the country are advocating bold policy reforms and their voices need to be heard; those possibilities need to be on the table. Whether or not we see such radical change in our lifetime is up in the air. But one thing history teaches us is that sometimes, when we’re least expecting it, transformative change happens, and it usually isn’t by luck—it’s through organizing and through sustained struggle.
Adam Goodman teaches in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His writing on immigration history and policy has appeared in outlets such as the Washington Post, The Nation, and the Journal of American History. Goodman is a faculty advisor to UIC’s Fearless Undocumented Alliance, a co-convener of the Newberry Library’s Borderlands and Latino/a Studies seminar, and a co-organizer of the #ImmigrationSyllabus public history project. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton University Press, 2020) is his first book.
Plagued by unsavory stories in American popular culture, the lunch lady has been a mocked and villainized figure for decades. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in real-time, lunch ladies across the country are emerging as unassuming superheroes feeding millions across the United States.
Because of school closures and an economic downturn, school food is assuming a major role in providing emergency meals for their communities. Some are doing so independently and others have partnered with local food banks, faith-based organizations, and the Red Cross. With nearly 75 million children under the age of eighteen across the country, coupled with families losing their incomes at a startling rate, more and more people are in need of food. In the first three weeks of shelter-in-place orders, sixteen million Americans filed for unemployment while in nearly the same three-week period, the Los Angeles Unified School District served five million meals to children and adults.
Arroyo High Schools in El Monte, California
Yet unlike the origin stories of comic book heroes, the history of the lunch lady has been almost entirely erased. Moreover, their collective stories have fallen victim to historical amnesia. As a result, school food, as a sector, is invisible to and undervalued by society. For decades, most lunch ladies held some of the lowest paying jobs in school systems, making hourly wages with little to no benefits—creating a lasting impact on their economic and social worth. This is the underappreciated workforce that the United States now looks to for support.
More than ever, it is important to elevate the origin story of the lunch lady. As comic books have taught us, we can’t undo the past but we can learn from it as we move on to create future narratives, where lunch ladies (and gentlemen, or more gender non-conforming “food folks”) are acknowledged and respected for the essential workers that they are, during and outside of a pandemic. To bring those narratives to light, Jennifer Gaddis gives us their origin story in The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools (UC Press, 2019).
In her book, Gaddis addresses implicit biases the reader may hold about lunch ladies by guiding us through a richly-layered history of school food and labor. Using archival photos and first-hand stories, she connects us with narratives that have been withheld from our collective consciousness. She addresses the inequities of this work head on by laying out the historic role that racial and economic discrimination, capitalism, and patriarchy played in perpetuating stereotypes of school food service workers.
Gaddis sets the stage for the book not in faraway time or even in a cafeteria. She starts the book in 2004 with Lisa, a 48-year-old assistant cook, testifying in front of a local school board: “Good evening, distinguished board members and all in the room who have an ethical obligation to our children. I see some faces whose children I have had the honor of personally feeding. I use the word honor because it is the highest trust a parent can give, letting someone else care and nurture their children” (1). In her own words, Lisa addresses the board as an advocate and labor union member, identities not often associated with lunch ladies.
UNITE HERE Local 1 workers gather in protest outside Chicago Public Schools head-quarters in April 2012 as part of a series of actions in their real-food, real-jobs campaigns.Courtesy UNITE HERE
Further so, she aptly titles the first chapter of the book, “The Radical Roots of School Lunch.” This foundational section to the book disaggregates the history you may find on the internet when you search for “school lunch.” Gaddis tells a history of a movement that began half a century before the passing of the 1946 National School Lunch Act, by firmly rooting school food history alongside feminist history, calling it a “product of generations of women’s activism.” In fact, school lunch started out in the 1890s as a localized “penny lunch” program as part of a “nonprofit school lunch movement.” It was born out of a public necessity to feed extremely poor children, “not as private, gendered responsibility” (18). School lunch, along with kindergarten and public kitchens, were just some approaches advocates used to create new forms of public caregiving to support the changing roles of women during this industrializing era.
A federal policy that paves the way for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) can appear to be a win, but who is actually benefiting from the program? Gaddis examines the systemic racial inequities that excluded many populations of color under the federal school lunch program. In the chapter, “The Fight for Food Justice,” Gaddis discusses the role of the Black Panther Party in organizing local support for poor black communities whose needs were unmet by the government. In 1968, a group of Oakland mothers worked alongside the Panthers to start the very first Free Breakfast for Children Program. This program resulted in a national movement of localized expansion in poor black communities that would feed tens of thousands of poor black children across the country while exposing inequities, and demonstrating to the American public “a working example of how social reproduction could be collectivized at the neighborhood scale in a truly egalitarian fashion” (62).
In addition to social and political movements, the chronology of school food is also heavily influenced by the industrialization of food and rise of the cheap food economy, as well as the government’s role in regulating what goes into school meals. In 1981, the Reagan administration reduced the school food budget by one-third, resulting in the need to cut costs by changing regulations to include cheaper substitutes. A task force was convened to discuss cheaper alternatives to certain meal components: “Suddenly corn chips, pretzels, doughnuts, and pies could all pass as ‘bread’ in the NSLP” (98). Gaddis also describes the shifting labor of school lunch, as more central kitchen models were being constructed and for-profit Big Food factories began receiving more contracts to turn commodity foods like chicken into nuggets. These shifts led to reheating already prepared foods and diminishing a school cafeteria’s capacity to cook from scratch. This period, according to Gaddis, had a stark effect on the school food programming across the country.
Workers making prepack sandwiches in a central kitchen facility. Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture, 1974-ca. 2003, National Archives and Records Administration.
Despite the challenges that exist in school food, Gaddis positions a lofty goal for the school food sector: “Empowering school kitchen and cafeteria workers to cook real food from scratch using locally sourced and school-grown ingredients can transform the entire culture of [NSLP]” (174). Rather than one-off solutions or one-size fits all approaches, Gaddis offers several examples to realize this “real food economy.” One approach is farm-to-school, by which schools can connect and buy directly from local farmers. This type of programming effectively builds relationships with food so that we know where it comes from. This requires coordinated efforts and investments: “Establishing comprehensive farm-to-school programs that combine local food procurement, school gardening, and classroom education takes significant effort that is difficult to sustain without grant funding and personal donations” (196). Identifying and working with local partners is key to making this change. Gaddis reminds us of this shared responsibility: “The NSLP is a public program. And we, the public, can reimagine and ultimately transform it into an engine for positive social and economic change” (214). We must remember that to feed children, we must also employ people to serve, cook, transport, and grow food. In effect, this would stimulate the economy, not take away from it.
Making these sweeping changes to the school food system requires a greater shift in society. Gaddis positions the notion of a real school food system into a new economy of care. How do we care about school food and the labor behind it? Gaddis reminds us that the value of school food and labor is dependent on our collective respect for it: “It’s up to us to change the paradigm. Cheapness is not synonymous with public value.” (228). Now more than ever, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, food service workers across the country need this paradigm shift as they risk their own health to feed millions of children. By valuing their labor and school food we can better support them on the frontlines of this public health crisis.
Christine Tran is a food and education advocate from South El Monte, California. She is passionate about people, places, food, and stories that connect us all. Her diverse background in education, food justice, communities, and policy has taken her across the country and around the world. As a multimedia storyteller, she aspires to spark dialogues to deepen our understanding of each other, the food we eat, and the world we share. Christine is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington studying Educational Leadership, Policy & Organizations. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees in Asian American Studies and English, as well as a Master of Education from UCLA. She also holds a Master of Arts in sociology from Columbia University in the City of New York.
Growing up in the Central Valley, the history of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez loomed large. When teachers in school incorporated him into our history lessons, many of the students were already familiar with the impact he and the farm worker movement had on the lives of farm workers in California. Yet, despite being born and raised in the Central Valley, as a Yemeni American, I didn’t always identify with the history of the UFW which primarily focused on the experiences of Mexican and Filipino laborers. It was not until my father shared with me that he attended Chavez’s rallies during his time picking grapes near Delano in the 1970s, that I began to discover the role Yemenis played in the UFW. My father’s stories unlocked for me an entire history of Yemenis in the Central Valley and their experiences in the farm worker movement.
The UFW and the farm worker movement led by Cesar Chavez has been well documented and has allowed historians to explore the successes and failures of perhaps the most well-known labor movement in United States history. There has been an effort from both scholars and public institutions such as the National Parks Services to improve public history on the UFW and address many of the misunderstandings within this history by engaging in public storytelling through academic scholarship, historical landmarks, and even children’s literature. Following in the path of this work, this article begins with my father’s stories in order to explore the history of Yemeni farm workers in the Central Valley and their involvement in the UFW throughout the 1970s. For those familiar with the farm worker movement, the inclusion of Yemenis is limited to the death of Nagi Daifallah, a young Yemeni immigrant and UFW organizer killed by a deputy sheriff in Lamont, California. Not often discussed, however, is the fact that during Nagi’s funeral march in August of 1973, Yemenis decided to carry a portrait of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a leader of anti-colonial Arab nationalism. Based on an oral history with my father as well as archival material that has been largely ignored, including Nagi Daifallah’s papers, this article contextualizes why Yemenis turned to Arab nationalism and the impact it had on the UFW’s social justice platform. By exploring the life of Nagi and other Yemeni farm workers, this article looks at this understudied chapter in the UFW’s history to argue that because of their Arab and Muslim identities as well as invocation of anticolonial Arab nationalism, Yemenis had a complicated relationship with the union that disrupts the narrative of a multicultural movement.
My father, Mohamed Alamri, immigrated to the United States from Yemen in the summer of 1975. He first arrived in Dearborn, Michigan where there existed a large Yemeni community, thousands of whom were working in Detroit’s booming auto industry for companies like Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Less prominent in numbers, yet growing each year, was the community of Yemenis in California, which everyone in Dearborn told Mohamed was where you can find the “real money.” Driven by the motivation to find a job that could provide the most for his parents and siblings back in Yemen, Mohamed hopped a plane to California. The first job he landed was in Poplar, a small town 70 miles south of Fresno, picking grapes. Mohamed recalled how the other Yemenis at the labor camp laughed when he arrived dressed in a tie, button-down shirt, and slacks. Growing up in Yemen and hearing of America’s wealth and luxury, he wanted to look his best. Yet, after a long day toiling under the summer heat, Mohamed quickly learned that working in the fields of Central Valley was not very different than village life in Yemen.
Mohamed, right, after a day’s work in Poplar, CA. Courtesy of author
Mohamed joined thousands of Yemeni farm workers who found work in the fields from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s. Due to lack of official records, it is unclear exactly how many Yemeni farm workers there were during this period, but estimates range from a few hundred to over five thousand. Yemenis migrated within three major agricultural regions within California: the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and the Imperial Valley. Migration cycles began with the April asparagus harvest in Stockton, and then moved to the southern end of the valley in the Delano-Porterville-Bakersfield area for the grape harvest until the end of November. Then, many Yemenis moved to Arvin or Coachella where the grapevine-pruning season began. They eventually returned to the Delano-Porterville area to complete more grapevine pruning and remained in that area until the next migration cycle. Like other farm workers, Yemenis faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. They were, however, seen as desirable by employers. As growers were faced with the increasing resistance and union organizing amongst Mexican and Filipino workers, many were eager to employ Yemenis whom they believed were docile and “easier to control.” The growers did not anticipate the fact that not only would Yemenis organize alongside the UFW, but were also equipped with radical politics inspired by events in Yemen as well as their Muslim and Arab identities, differentiating them from their Mexican and Filipino counterparts.
For my father and many other Yemenis who grew up in the context of decolonization and revolution in Yemen, the UFW’s emphasis on social justice was both identifiable and appealing. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of tumultuous political changes in former North and South Yemen. With the spread of Arab nationalism inspired by Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as anti-colonial movements throughout the world, North and South Yemenis were inspired to challenge systems of power. In 1963, the National Liberation Front was established in South Yemen in order to decolonize the British Protectorate of Aden. Meanwhile, in North Yemen, military rebels fought to overthrow the ruling monarchy at the time and establish a republic. In 1967, South Yemen successfully decolonized Aden, ending over a hundred years of British imperial presence in the region, and became a Marxist regime known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. A year later in 1968, North Yemen overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Yemen. The wars in South and North Yemen as well as the end of British colonization in Aden, led to a deterioration of Yemen’s economy. With many families facing poverty, Yemen’s largest economic export became its labor force, consisting primarily of men. Although Yemenis had been migrating for work beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, the 1960s and 1970s saw large scale labor migration of Yemenis to other parts of the world, including Britain, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the United States. The 1965 Immigration Act, which ended restrictive immigration policies, increased Yemeni immigration to the United States. By the 1970s, many of the Yemenis arriving in the United States worked in automobile factories in Detroit, Michigan, steel plants in Buffalo, New York, and agricultural farms across California. The experiences of Yemeni immigrants in California were reflective of many of the experiences of Arab immigrants who arrived post-1965. Yet, unlike other Arab immigrants, primarily from Lebanon and Syria, who arrived in the early twentieth century, Yemenis who came to the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s were predominantly working-class and Muslim. While many Arabs in the U.S. prior to the 1960s had been racialized as white, the intersection of class and religion racialized Yemeni immigrants as non-white, “other” minorities.
Alongside increased employment by growers, there are several reasons why Yemenis came to California. Many came to the U.S. with agricultural experience in Yemen already, as families usually owned a few acres in which they grew and harvested their own food. Following the wars in Yemen, however, a decline in national resources and limited economic opportunities pushed most families to rely on foreign imports. Another strategy included sending relatives, usually young men, to other countries for work in order to earn money for the entire family. In the mid-twentieth century, the booming California agricultural industry offered immediate employment opportunities to many young Yemeni men who came to the U.S. with some agricultural experience in hopes of supporting their families back home. Another channel by which Yemenis came to California was a credit system established by Trans World Airlines (TWA). The system was allegedly backed by growers to help expedite travel for immigrants, predominantly young men from Yemen. Although not Mohamed’s experience, based on testimonies from UFW volunteers and the few secondary sources available, there are speculations that growers themselves funded the travel to bring groups of young men from Yemen to work. Through this system, a relative or friend residing in California paid a $100 deposit with a cosigner in Yemen for a plane ticket from the TWA costing $800 with the condition that upon arrival the worker would pay the beneficiary back. While providing loans to help travel from Yemen was common between Yemenis, the involvement of the TWA in facilitating this communal practice was unusual. Yemenis who came in through the TWA credit system arrived in the dozens and essentially went straight from the airport to the hiring halls. A spokesman representing a group of workers would initiate applications for social security numbers so the workers could begin working as soon as possible. There are several discrepancies between the numbers provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service records which reports 380 alien Yemenis registered in 1974 as opposed to the numbers given by the TWA office in Los Angeles which reports 100,000 in the decade leading up to 1974. This discrepancy indicates the possibility that the number reported by TWA were of undocumented Yemenis.
Yemeni farm workers faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. Similar to other farm workers, the conditions for Yemenis were inextricably linked to the exploitive system established by the growers. Faced with the precarities of being a low-wage laborer and immigrant, it was no surprise, then, that the UFW appealed to Yemenis. Beginning in the late 1960s, there were at least 500 Yemeni UFW members, although the numbers were likely higher. The UFW offered Yemenis a platform to advocate, assert their presence, and gain resources. Amongst many things, the UFW worked to provide Arabic translators for Yemeni workers, halal food in the labor camps, as well as access to health care. While health issues such as tuberculosis and respiratory infections were common among farm workers, many Yemenis suffered from schistosomiasis, an intestinal infection caused by contact of parasites in water endemic in Yemen. The UFW tested and treated hundreds of Yemenis.
While the UFW was accommodating to needs of Yemeni workers by providing them with services, the invocation of Arab nationalism also threatened the UFW’s platform and reputation amongst supporters. Throughout the first half of the 1970s, the peak of Yemeni immigration to California, Yemeni farm workers were present for some of the most successful as well as contentious years of the UFW. As the UFW fought to sustain their success following the 1970 historic grape contracts, Yemenis were a strategic group to mobilize. The UFW hired several Yemeni organizers in order to reach out to the Yemeni community, many of whom only spoke Arabic. Some of these organizers included: Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah. Saeed Mohamed Al-Alas a UFW organizer from Aden, the capital of former South Yemen, organized with the UFW in the early 1970s and was the lead organizer for a funeral march in Porterville honoring the life of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Ahmed Shaibi who was also South Yemeni was hired by the UFW in 1977 and served for the union for several years before opening the first local chapter of the Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee in Delano in 1982. Lastly Nagi Daifallah, whose untimely death profoundly impacted the trajectory of the union, was also a union organizer.
Like Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah, those with a background in social justice activism in Yemen, including anti-colonial and Arab nationalist ideologies, became involved as organizers the UFW. While these ideologies had origins in the context of political changes in Yemen and the Middle East, they were not mutually exclusive from the issues Yemeni farm workers faced in the Central Valley. Yemenis invoked these political identities as a way to assert themselves as immigrants in California, as well as, define their involvement in the farm worker movement. One example of this was a funeral march for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ardent leader of Arab nationalism, that was organized by Yemeni farm workers in Porterville. On October 1, 1970, after Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack, local Yemenis planned a funeral march in his honor. Nearly one thousand Yemeni farm workers in Porterville attended a funeral march to mourn the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Led by a drummer, marchers carried an American flag alongside the United Arab Republic flag and a portrait of the late President Nasser covered in a black veil. In an article of the union’s newsletter, El Malcriado, documenting the event, Yemeni UFW organizer Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas stated, “Nasser has been a father to us. He was the only great leader we had. He brought all the Arabs together, began economic programs, and threw the British out of Egypt. He was really interested in the people.” Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement on Nasser discussed three political projects: Arab unity, economic justice and lastly anti-colonialism. All of these things contextualized Mohammed Al-Alas’ involvement in fighting for farm worker justice in California. When asked why he remains in the Central Valley he replied, “Where else could I do as much for my countrymen?” Evident in Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement, and for many other Yemenis, politics rooted in Arab nationalism and decolonization were not separate from their identities as UFW supporters and immigrants in the Central Valley. Highlighted in the union’s newsletter, the inclusion of Yemenis in the movement in the early 1970s helped boost the union’s reputation for multicultural social justice, particularly at a time when Filipino farm workers became disillusioned with Chavez’s leadership. Yet, the turn to anti-colonial Arab nationalism radicalized Yemenis in a way that was illegible to the UFW’s mission.
Chavez, center, marching with Yemeni activists, Delano, CA, 1973. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries
Three years later, in August of 1973, the portrait of Nasser would be carried once more, this time to mourn the death of Nagi Daifallah. Nagi’s death occurred in the midst of combative union politics between the UFW and the Teamsters, police violence against workers, as well as police and grower collaboration. On July 29, 1970, the UFW signed what would come to be known as the historic grape contracts, ending the five-year-long grape strike and boycott that began in Delano and marked the first collective bargaining agreement for farm workers in California. The UFW’s fight for farm worker justice did not end there, of course. In the summer of 1973, as the UFW’s three-year grape contracts came up for renewal, strikes took place again after growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters union without an election. Thousands of strikers were arrested, and hundreds suffered injuries at the hands of law enforcement. On the evening of August 13, 1973, a group of farm workers and UFW volunteers and organizers stood outside a café in Lamont, California. Deputy Sheriff Gilbert Cooper arrived on the scene to arrest picket captain Frank Quintana on charges of disturbing the peace. Several workers began to protest Quintana’s arrest; among them was a 24-year-old farm worker from Yemen, Nagi Daifallah. Upon protest of Quintana’s arrest, Sheriff Cooper began harassing Nagi. As Nagi attempted to run away, Cooper swung a metal flashlight at his head causing severe injuries to his spinal cord. Nagi was left to die on the pavement. While harassment by police was a common reality faced by strikers, workers, and UFW organizers, the death of Nagi sent shock waves through the union and deeply impacted the trajectory of the farm worker movement. On August 17, 1973 over 7,000 Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino mourners gathered at the Forty Acres union field office in Delano, the “cradle” of the farm worker movement to attend Nagi’s funeral march. Yemeni farm workers, UFW volunteers, organizers, and Cesar Chavez himself, marched in silence alongside Nagi’s casket in solidarity against the violence and systemic oppression perpetuated by agribusiness. Chavez spoke very highly of Nagi who was an organizer for the union and was deemed a martyr for the movement.
Facing a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, Nagi’s death brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities in solidarity, if only for a moment. His death provided an opportunity for the UFW to emphasize that the movement was for all immigrants and people of color. In his eulogy statement for Nagi Chavez highlighted his immigrant identity stating that “Nagi had come to this country from his native Yemen looking for a better life” and “gave himself to the grape strike and the struggle for justice for all farm workers.” Yet, the picture of Nagi painted by Chavez and the UFW portrayed him as simply a passive victim of his circumstances. In his eulogy, Chavez stated how Yemeni workers were, “the latest group of people to come to California to be exploited by the California growers” and that “most of them, like Nagi, were young men in their early twenties, they were unusually shy, of slight frame, Moslem, spoke no English, and live in barren labor camps.”  By characterizing the movement for all immigrants and people of color, Chavez answered to critics at the time who accused the UFW for being ethnocentric by prioritizing Mexican workers as well as being too Catholic-based. It also addressed critiques that the UFW was too dependent on white, middle class volunteers and advisors.
However, the characterization of Nagi as “unusually shy,” portrayed him as a passive victim as opposed to the political activist he was. Beyond the dominant narrative which focuses solely on Nagi’s death, the writings and letters he left behind for his father offer a look into his experiences working in the fields and being involved with the UFW. In actuality, when Nagi became a UFW organizer he already had experience in political activism back in Yemen. Nagi, originally from North Yemen, became politically involved at a young age. While going to school in Aden (South Yemen) during British occupation, Nagi publicly stood against the British as well as the North Yemeni government, which resulted in his imprisonment for some time. As a young man, Nagi was arrested for pulling down both the British flag and the North Yemen flag in an act of protest while attending a college in Aden. Furthermore, based on letters he wrote to his father, it was evident that rather than being shy and inexperienced, Nagi had a keen understanding of how power and exploitation was operating within agribusiness. In a letter to his father, Nagi wrote:
Dearest father, you will be amazed at this which I am writing to you in this letter about the prisons for workers in American, and (when I) tell you how much an agriculture worker suffers and endures in terms of severe ill-will from the landlords of ranches. These workers live in encampments that resemble military barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and a massive barrier of governmental agents, who forbid anyone from contacting the workers, or even conversing with their friends, except by signals, or when they are completely outside the camp, where they are far from the police. The landowners do not permit the workers to work in agriculture, except under laws the ranch-owners impose on them, with less than legal wages and insufficient safety precautions for the workers.
He vividly paints a picture about the life farm workers, comparing the labor camps to prisons and war camps. He discusses grower exploitation of workers through, not only controlling their wages, but also by limiting access to services and communication and purposely putting them in unsafe conditions. Nagi, like other Yemeni workers, also understood his oppression in both local and global ways, comparing his experiences in the Central Valley to those of living under an oppressive regime in Yemen.
Funeral ceremony for martyr Nagi Daifullah. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
The inclusion of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s portrait during Nagi’s funeral march represented this understanding that politics in the Central Valley were inseparable from global politics, like Arab nationalism. Alongside Nasser’s portrait, Yemeni workers carried flags representing the United States, Yemen, and the UFW, but it was Nasser’s image that would prove to be the most controversial. After Daifallah’s funeral, Chavez received several letters from supporters who were extremely disappointed to see Nasser, whom they viewed as an extremist and anti-Semitic, associated with the UFW and the movement. One example was a letter dated September 17, 1973 from Nate Bodin, President of the Local 800, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, of which the UFW was an independent affiliate. Bodin wrote to Chavez expressing disapproval at the inclusion of Nasser’s image, a man he compared to “Hitler or Porfirio Diaz [sic].” Bodin attached the image from the funeral march with Nasser’s portrait, which was published in The Los Angeles Times. He first pointed out how Local 800 has financially supported the UFW and then requested the UFW produce a statement regarding the Nasser portrait:
We know you to be a man of great courage and honesty. We know that unity among people of good-will is crucial. We applaud your efforts and wish you well with all the resources we can muster. However, we would like to have a statement from you regarding the above matter. We would like to know how you stand regarding the use of the representative of a people (Nasser) who have been in our opinion, misguided. We think the choice of ‘hero’ was a poor one for this sad occasion.
These letters demonstrated that the portrait of Nasser, a leader of Arab nationalism and Palestinian liberation threatened the UFW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO, an organization that boosted the union’s platform nationally. The decision to include Nasser spoke politically to the connections Yemeni workers made between social injustices abroad with the injustices they faced as farm workers in the U.S. However, it put Chavez and the UFW in a very tough situation and threatened the union’s support from pro-Israeli organizations as well as Jewish American religious leaders. Based on a social justice platform rooted in American civil rights discourse, the UFW was not prepared to take on global politics of Arab nationalism nor the question of Palestine. It became clear that the presence of Yemenis alongside the portrait of Nasser, was not only illegible to this platform, but challenged the very possibility of a truly multicultural movement.
In response to Bodin’s letter as well as letters from other disappointed supporters, Chavez and his assistants wrote back attempting to diffuse the situation. In these letters, Chavez invoked Nagi’s victimhood and martyrdom in order to depoliticize the presence of Nasser’s portrait and continue positive relations with the angry supporters. In one of these letters Chavez wrote:
Nagi’s death and his funeral procession were deeply personal events for thousands of our members. As a movement, we were both mourning his loss and standing in solidarity with his family. If you can place yourself in that very personal context I think you will understand why no one in the farm workers union can, in retrospect, cast negative reflections on what happened during the Nagi’s funeral march.
It is evident that while Yemeni farm workers chose to march with the image of Nasser in expression of their political identities as Arabs and the UFW did not object to this, Chavez and his leadership, on the other hand, were not prepared to be associated with a pro-Palestine Arab leader. The controversy over Nasser’s portrait demonstrated the ways in which the UFW navigated between communities and conflicting definitions of social justice in order to uphold the portrayal of an inclusive, multiethnic farm worker movement. When Daifallah was killed and deemed a martyr of the movement, the UFW opened its arms to the Yemeni community. With the Yemeni community now on Chavez’s side, however, the UFW’s position on global issues such as the question of Palestine, suddenly mattered. While the death of Nagi Daifallah brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities on the basis of a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, it also highlighted the ways in which solidarities can be complicated and difficult to maintain. The visibility of Yemenis at Daifallah’s funeral and the controversy surrounding Nasser’s portrait revealed the complicated space Yemenis occupied within the movement. My own father’s experience demonstrates this as well. 
My father, Mohamed, proudly recalled attending Chavez’s rallies and being a UFW member. He told me that after all these years, he even saved his union card. After scrimmaging through some old boxes to find the card, we discovered he was actually a Teamsters member, a rival union to the UFW notorious for implementing scare tactics and even physical violence against workers. Although Mohamed aligned with the UFW ideologically, he remembered that in order to keep his job he had to join the Teamsters, which was the case for many workers. My father’s memory of the union card is in many ways symbolic of the complicated relationship Yemenis had with the UFW. The notion that Yemenis had a place in a union of other immigrants of color seemed ideologically sound but often lacked substance. In reality, the presence of Yemenis highlighted the complicated, sometimes tense, interactions between ethnic groups, both outside and inside the UFW. This is not to say that solidarities never existed between Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino workers in the UFW, but rather that a celebratory or simplistic narrative obscures this complicated history.
The history of Yemeni farm workers expands the farm worker movement’s narrative and uncovers the role that Yemeni American activists had in U.S. labor movements. However, we must avoid simple additive history in which marginalized groups are just added into narratives. A few years back, I attended a UFW event and was approached by a woman with a rather confused look her face that asked: “So what do you have to do with all of this?” I knew exactly what she had meant, she was curious as to what a Muslim, Arab American woman possible had to do with the histories of the UFW. I explained to her that my father when he first immigrated to the U.S. from Yemen had worked as a farm worker and that I am now researching the history of Yemeni involvement in the UFW – but, I felt this explanation was simply not enough. There is the sort of obvious connection Yemenis have with this movement like having been present, attending Chavez’s rallies, and engaging in organizing. Simply put, they were there. But beyond simply inserting Yemenis in this history, we must interrogate the broader historical significance of these narratives. This includes asking why Yemenis have been marginalized within this history. Part of the answer is that numerically speaking, there simply were not as many Yemeni farm workers during that time compared to the majority Mexican and Filipino laborers. However, the other reason why Yemenis have been overlooked has to do with how their engagement with Arab nationalism disrupted the UFW’s mission.
By 1982, there were no Yemeni UFW organizers. In that same year, Ahmed Shaibi, who had formerly organized with the UFW, established the Delano chapter of the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC). Shaibi saw a dire need for an organization that focused on the specific needs of the Yemeni community. Shaibi estimated that Arabs inhabited nearly 90 percent of labor camps in Delano and yet, there was nowhere they could go for social services. This was particularly challenging due to language barriers Yemeni workers faced and the lack of translators who spoke Arabic. However, the promise that the ADC had for Yemenis in the Central Valley never reached its full potential. By 1985, the same year that Palestinian American Alex Odeh, the West Coast regional director of the ADC, was murdered by a bomb planted in his Santa Ana office the ADC in Delano was defunct. The closing of the Delano ADC was most likely a direct reaction of Odeh’s murder, as many Yemeni and Arab American activists feared the consequences of political activism.
During the same time the ADC closed, the majority of Yemenis who worked as agricultural laborers left the fields for other jobs. Many of them found occupations in major California cities such as San Francisco as janitors, opened grocery stores, or returned to Yemen. Today, many Yemenis own small businesses in the same cities that they originally worked in as farm workers. Asking my father about his initial years in the U.S. as a farm worker unraveled an entire history of Yemenis in the UFW that I otherwise would not have known because it is not recognized in the official narrative or visibly present in the archives. This signifies the importance of building new archives as marginalized stories live on through the people around us, sometimes those closest to us.
The experiences of Yemenis in the UFW is an important chapter in the history of the Central Valley’s Yemeni community, a population that has significantly grown in numbers in the past few years. These stories contribute to the historiography of rural California and multiracial communities in the Central Valley. Alongside the history of other immigrant groups in the Central Valley including Mexican, Filipino, and Punjabi laborers, the experiences of Yemenis underscore how the local is deeply intertwined with global politics like Arab nationalism. The history of the Yemeni American community matters now more than ever. As Yemeni Americans face increasing restrictive immigration legislation and xenophobic rhetoric, this history is a reminder that Yemenis have long been a part of U.S. history, despite not always being recognized.
 See: Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, (London: Verso, 2011); Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press,2012); Ana Raquel Minian, “‘Indiscriminate and Shameless Sex’: The Strategic Use of Sexuality by the United Farm Workers.” American Quarterly (2013, Volume, 65.1): 63–90. 2013; Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).
 Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment,” National Park Services U.S. Department of the Interior, (Fall 2013).; Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, (Bridge and Delta Publishing, 2018); Ray Rast, Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment, with multiple co-authors. San Francisco: National Park Service, Pacific West Region, 2012.
 Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.
 Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.;”Voices from the Heartland: Young Yemeni Americans Speak,” Middle Eastern Resources Online. http://www.mearo.org/yemeni-americans/san-joaquin-valley.php
 Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.
 Juan J. Sanchez and Solache Saul, “Yemeni Agricultural Workers in California: Migration Impact,” Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Records, Bulk 1968-1995, box 18, folder 14, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University, Stanford CA.
 Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.
 Robert Stookey, South Yemen: A Marxist Republic in Arabia, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982).
 Gregory Orfalea, The Arab Americans: A History, (Northampton: Olive Branch Press, 2006), 153
 Marcia Aronson, “My Involvement in the United Farm Workers of America 1973-1978,” Farm Worker Documentation Project
 Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 206-207.
 Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” 208.
 Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California.”
 Clinic Program for Arab Members,” 9 March 1973, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego.
 “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.; Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.
 “Morning March Here For Nasser,” 30 Sept. 1970, Porterville Recorder, Porterville Public Library; “Nasser Buried, Mideast Sad,” 1 Oct. 1970, Porterville Recorder.
 “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker,” 1 Nov. 1970, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.
 Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, 100
15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA.
 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Nadine Naber, “The Yemeni UFW Martyr,” Middle East Research and Information Project, vol. 44 (Winter 2014).
 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 62.
 Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, (University of California Press, 2014), 127
 United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.
 Chris Hartmire Personal Papers, Retrieved from Miriam Pawel; Arabic version is from United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.
 In 1972, the UFW was officially affiliated with the AFL-CIO and created a national executive board. This was also when they changed their name from United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) to United Farm Workers of America, known simply by their acronym, “UFW.” The affiliation with the AFL-CIO boosted the political platform of the UFW nationally. See Matthew Garcia, “Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-217
 UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.
 UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.
 In my dissertation, I explore Nagi’s funeral march as well as the 1973 October War with more depth. Chavez, for example, received many requests to take a stance in support of the state of Israel and eventually decided to issue a statement of support which received criticism from many UFW members and supporters. The UFW’s support of Israel also hurt their relationship with the Black Panther Party which had been Pro-Palestine from their founding. See Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 163.
 UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.
 UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.
 Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries
 Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 99.
 Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.; Delinda C. Hanley. “Arab Americans Demand Answers in 1985 Slaying of Alex Odeh,” The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 32.9, Dec. 2013
Neama Alamri is completing her PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at UC Merced and will be finished by May 2020. She will continue to work on her book project, “Long Live the Arab Worker: A Transnational History of Labor Activism in the Yemeni Diaspora,” which examines how Yemeni workers and activists, throughout the 20th century highlighted the connections between local challenges in the diaspora with global politics of empire.
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.
Original Art by Fernando Mendez Corona
The only reason I was sitting at the bleachers was because I wanted to watch this bitch get her ass kicked. This bitch, Karen, happened to be my neighbor. She lived behind a wall of pines, in a two-story mansion you could kind of see from my parents’ biggest bedroom window.
Karen’s pro-life mom drove a talking sedan and in a robot voice, the car would condescend to passengers, nagging Put on your seatbelt, whining Door ajar! I secretly hoped the car would kill Karen and her mother and I learned of its existence when a few of us missed the bus and Karen’s mom chauffeured us to the front steps of the shit show known as Orcutt Junior High.
Kids who went to Orcutt lied. Most of them claimed they went to school in Orcutt but according to zip code, these fools really went to school in Santa Maria. I knew why they said Orcutt. Claiming Orcutt was a way of claiming whiteness, a coded way of saying that you lived in the “unblemished” part of town. The assertion distanced you from Santa Maria. Santa Maria was “over there,” it was practically Tijuana: it was where “the Mexicans” lived.
Itty bitty Orcutt prided itself on not being brown and it styled itself as a low rent Mayberry replete with old timey storefronts that gave the place a settler vibe. When I ditched, I’d stroll Orcutt, noting its stock characters: the toothpick-sucking old white man shuffling about in dark denim overalls, the skinhead zooming downhill on his skateboard, the Christian youth group leader drooling over thirteen-year-olds eating fries in front of Charlies Burgers.
On clear days, you could see the ocean from Charlies. On even clearer days, you could see Casmalia, the toxic waste dump.
Karen wore the trappings of an oppressor. A pastel sock cascade devoured her cankles. Her denim shorts matched her denim vests. A scrunchie choked her half ponytail into place.
Scrunchie girls were the worst, scrunchies signaled a commitment to adolescent fascism, and Karen unleashed her KKKalifornia girl kuntiness on me the afternoon we first exchanged “pleasantries.” We were walking home from the bus stop, eucalyptus trees mentholated the air, and Karen eyed me like I was less than sirloin. The look gave me goosebumps, the ominous kind.
“What are you?” she blurted.
Dad had taught me to answer this question by declaring, “Chicana!” My intuition told me to keep it simple for my interrogator.
“Are you sure?”
Karen’s doubt took me aback. “Yeah. Why?”
“You have green eyes. Plus, you look Filipina.”
I remembered the Filipinos I’d played tag and kickball with up until last year, sixth grade. One playmate, Ted Aguinaldo, even told me that I was a very good kickball player for a girl. Ted’s family worshipped at the same church we did, Saint Mary’s, and Filipinos worked side-by-side with Mexicans in many places, including the hospital, the schools, and strawberry and broccoli fields surrounding town. Santa Maria was serious about strawberries, so much so that we had an annual festival where we crowned a Strawberry Queen. Such was our aristocracy.
I wondered how the fuck Karen was such an expert on Filipinos given that she lived in Orcutt’s whitest barrio: Lake Marie Estates. Yeah, I lived there, too, but I was, demographically speaking, the new non-White kid on the block.
“We had a housekeeper who was Filipina,” Karen continued. “You look like her.”
“Your housekeeper isn’t my mom.”
Karen kept staring at me, eyeballing my mustache, and I was on the verge of snapping, WHY DON’T YOU TAKE A FUCKING PICTURE?! when Karen’s attitude changed. In a fake friendly tone, she asked, “Have you seen Dirty Dancing?”
I shook my head.
“Don’t!” Karen barked. “It’s satanic!”
Karen was finally saying something interesting.
“Satanic!” I echoed. “Tell me more.”
Karen explained that since its plot involved abortion, Dirty Dancing was the devil’s film. Being twelve, I didn’t know what abortion was. I did, however, know the word abort and I wanted to abort this interrogation, go to the movies, get refreshments, and sin.
Karen and the rest of Lake Marie’s kids earned our distrust fast. Its preppy thugs welcomed us, the second Mexican-American family to take up residence there, by annihilating our mailbox with a baseball bat, aiming what the sheriff determined was a pellet gun at our windows and blasting them full of holes. I’m almost positive it was Karen and her flat-assed friends who snuck onto our property the night of the pentacle.
“Myriam!” Dad hollered one morning. “Go get the paper!”
I hurried across our porch, past Mom’s roses, and down our steep driveway. The paper had landed near a large agave. A mockingbird smiled at me from its perch, our new, still-intact mailbox. White caught my eye. I turned to see what it was and surveyed a dewy mess. Toilet paper mummified our oak trees and flannel bush. It draped the ceanothus Dad had planted along our hillside and a wet glob of it crapped from a branch, splattering whiteness across the soil. I snatched the newspaper, looked up, and saw an epithet written across our driveway. Its letters were made of something white, maybe sugar.
Skirting the words, I sprinted to our front door, threw it open, and screamed, “Dad!”
Dad appeared in ladies’ sweats. He prefers the variety of colors they come in. Wearing a worried look, he asked, “Is the mailbox still there?”
“Yeah but…just come look.”
Dad followed me to the bottom of our hill. He surveyed our yard. “Shit,” he said.
I pointed behind us, at the driveway. “Look.”
Colorless letters spelled EVIL BITCH. Beneath the accusation was a sugary star held by a sugary circle.
Through his angry beard, Dad asked, “Who do you think did this?”
“The bitch with the talking car.”
Ignoring my profanity, Dad said, “Go the garage. Get the push broom and clean this stuff up. Also, please bring me my chainsaw.”
I cleaned trees and shrubs and swept EVIL BITCH away while Dad found solace in cutting things up.
Photo by Geoff Cordner
I hated the gym but I was in it anyways. The metal bleachers felt cold against my pompis. Down below, on the court, a boy dribbled a ball. Threw it.
He was not interesting.
Jenni was. I was focused on her.
Jenni was lighter skinned than me but definitely not White. She was sitting in the bleachers facing ours, and she practically glowed.
All of the social rejects hanging out in the gym were there for her.
We were TEAM JENNI.
Word on the street, and by street I mean our abusive-as-fuck campus, was that Jenni was going to discipline Karen. The bitch needed to be checked since she’d violated an important rule: Karen had shit-talked a chola. A Chicano, Freddy, had inspired the vendetta. Both Jenni and Karen had the hots for him, but Karen believed he belonged to her. She told everybody so. She also told everyone that Freddy deserved a classy girl, not a trashy whore like Jenni.
Now, because of her mouth, Karen might die.
I heard through the grapevine that to catch the violence, I should keep an eye on Jenni at lunchtime. After wolfing down tuna sandwiches, my friends and I spotted and tailed Jenni. She led us to the gym and we played it cool. Nobody wanted to tip off to the administration that an act of guerilla barbering was about to take place. It excited me that the fight was going to involve hair and apparently Jenni had told someone who had told someone who had told a tall Mexican girl named Summer that Karen was going to get jumped. During the attack, Jenni would use scissors and abscond with Karen’s dirty blonde copete.
I couldn’t wait for the de-banging, the hacking of a non-consensual mullet, and the promise of Karen’s assault gave me hope: squadrons of Karens and Matts tormented so many of us at Orcutt Junior High and for once, the meek might inherit the campus.
Amidst a sea of White teachers, a solitary Chicano taught science. White girls gossiped that because of his brownness, one should avoid being alone with him, he probably raped. And while shit-talking dark-skinned people was a popular campus pastime, woe unto those who talked shit in the righteous direction.
“Who do you think you are?” my White history teacher scrawled beside the F she wrote on an essay I’d done for homework. “How dare you write these things about Manifest Destiny?! Manifest Destiny is a sacred doctrine! Its why we’re here. What do you suggest White people do? Move? There are too many of us! Your suggestions are very offensive and unrealistic!”
Our male faculty were worse. They watched and did nothing when White boys lunged, pointed, and hissed the n-word at my beautifully fat lips. Sneering at my mustache, boys groaned, Ew. Yuck! The worst of them jammed their hands between my legs, trying to rape me with fingers lubed by chip grease. They didn’t hide their violence, it went down al fresco, and about once a week, marauders crept up behind me, grabbed my hem, and yanked my skirts up past my ribs.
One little gang turned my torture into a two-for-one. On their way toward me, they slammed a skinny Mexican boy against the wall, shoved their backpacks at him and turned on me. Our audience froze. Once I was scrambling to cover my private parts, the predators sauntered back to the Mexican. After snatching back their stuff, the burliest one drawled, “Thanks, faggot.”
My witness showed racial solidarity: he ratted my attackers out to our vice principal. Our vice principal told him nothing could be done about my constant degradation but he was lying, something could be done. Lore I hadn’t learned in school, lore I’d learned from books with bandits on the covers, pointed the way. These books belonged to Dad, they lived on our living room’s bookshelf, and they clued me into stuff my White history teacher pretended hadn’t happened. Gringos had been pushing Mexicans to the edge since they first trudged into California. Desperation turned us into desperados and after they laid claim to our land, money, and bodies, they left us a single valuable to defend: our reputations.
From the moment I first saw her shuffle across our playground, I’d admired Jenni’s walk. She moved pussy first, her clit was a bloodhound’s nose and Jenni dressed like my favorite gang-affiliated prima, la Green Eyes. Stretchy black jeans so tight her camel toe hung like lop rabbit ears. Nike Cortez. A black sweatshirt. Si hacía frío, a Raiders jacket cocooned her from neck to knees. La Jenni ratted and teased her locks identical to Green Eyes and her cynical baby face peered out through un huipil grandote de tehuana. Instead of lace and linen, the huipil’s ingredients were Chicana hairs shellacked into place by Aqua Net.
(If you don’t know what un huipil grande de tehuana is, picture a big-ass crunchy sunflower framing a güerita’s face. That was Jenni’s hairstyle. I worshipped it. It is possible to worship hair, especially when it communicates aristocracy and reaches for the gods.)
Karen was watching Freddy play basketball. Jenni was watching Karen. She sat a few yards away from her, glaring at her hair. Karen felt Jenni’s eyes and turned around. When she turned back, she was wearing a fuchi face. Once her eyes landed on Freddy, her cara de fuchi vanished. Adoration replaced it.
Jenni looked at her audience, at all of us gathered in the opposing bleachers. Slowly, she tugged her jacket’s zipper down. By their handle, she pulled out a pair of large shears, displaying them so that they glinted. The spectacle stoked our bloodthirst. I trembled. I was on the verge on making pipí in my bicycle shorts. Anticipatory states often make me wet myself a touch.
Cluelessly, Karen stood. She smoothed her sweater. She adjusted her socks. She walked. Her best friend, Sarah, followed her. After they disappeared into the courtside restroom, Jenni smiled. She stood. An entourage of girls followed her. Tracing Karen’s path, they entered the restroom. Those of us there for the reckoning held our breaths. We feared tipping off grown-ups. This desire forced us to play it cool. My sense sharpened. De repente, a scream like a demon giving birth to a two-headed Medusa interrupted the basketball game.
Most of the boys playing froze. Freddy kept dribbling.
Jenni emerged. A worried crease lined her forehead. With her hands in her pockets, she scurried along the court’s edge and flew out of the gym. Sarah tore through the restroom’s doorway, flailing onto the court. She grabbed the teacher refereeing the game by his shirtsleeve and shouted into his ear. His eyes widened and he shoved his whistle between his non-lips, blowing and blowing and blowing.
Euphoria filled me.
We had a hero.
During mi niñez bilingüe, two severed heads enthralled me.
The first was female. I met it in Anaheim.
For vacation, Dad drove us to Disneyland and at the Haunted Mansion, we boarded Doom Buggies that spun us around a house filled with ghosts like in the novel Pedro Páramo. My favorite specter was nothing from the neck down. From the neck up, she was Madame Leota, a pretty dead clairvoyant. Her head floated in a crystal ball at the center of a round table, overseeing a séance, and Leota’s makeup was spectacular. I wondered who did it. She had no hands.
The second head was actually several heads which had, and had not, belonged to Joaquín Murrieta. I’d learned about him, a Mexican bandit, from those books I mentioned earlier and when I mentioned my admiration for Murrieta to Dad, Dad filled me in on a chunk of the desperado’s tale that the books omitted: Murrieta’s executioners had decapitated him so that they could collect the high bounty that the state of California offered for his capture. Afterwards, some enterprising gabacho tossed his head in a jar, pickled it, and charged people a buck to see it.
According to certain audience members, the head in the jar wasn’t Murrieta’s. Vigilantes decapitated the wrong Mexican but really, aren’t all Mexicans the same? Aren’t we all bandits?
I’m a bandit.
The Mexican boy who watched my attack was a bandit.
Mom was a bandit.
Dad was a bandit.
My brother was a bandit.
My sister was a bandit.
Jenni was a bandit.
And because of that, the cops came and took her away. La copetóna never came back.
I would’ve paid at least a dollar to ogle her pickled piece of Karen.
The afternoon of the chopping, Karen didn’t ride the bus home.
The talking car came and got her.
The bus felt different without her.
The kids who typically did the torturing, the White boys who spit on girls and called us hairy cunts, the White girls who sneered at those of us with “hard to pronounce names,” acted a bit more reserved. Timidity had replaced viciousness.
I sat up straight in my seat, smiling, enjoying my ride home.
“This is how school should feel,” I thought to myself.
The bus sped along Clark Avenue, across the 101 Freeway, and up a slight grade. I looked out the window, toward the Solomon Hills. Dad liked talking about them. In 1901, William Warren Orcutt had struck oil there but that detail didn’t excite Dad. What did was the legend of Salomón Pico, cousin of California’s last Mexican governor, Pío Pico.
Gringos killed Pico’s wife, so to avenge her, Pico killed gringos. He ambushed travelers along the windy camino real, robbing them, dumping their corpses wherever he wanted to. Legend had it that he collected his victims’ ears and my mind’s eye conjured Pico resting in the shade of an erotic oak, humming to himself, petting his shriveled trophies, one or two still tufted with blood-matted blond hair.
The bus pulled up to my stop.
I disembarked Karenlessly.
I walked home Karenfree.
Myriam Gurbais a writer, podcaster and artist who lives in Long Beach, California. Her most recent book, the true crime memoir Mean, was a New York Times editors’ choice. Publishers Weekly describes her as a “literary voice like none other.” Gurba co-hosts the AskBiGrlz advice podcast with cartoonist, and fellow biracialist, MariNaomi. Her collage and digital artwork has been shown in museums, galleries, and community centers. Follow her on Twitter.