Tag: Social Justice

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Navigating Anti-Black Racism in the Concert Hall: Timpanist Elayne Jones and the Challenge of Inclusion

Grace Wang

In a hand-written letter addressed to the personnel manager of San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in January 1972, Elayne Jones expressed interest in auditioning for the orchestra’s upcoming timpani opening. She was confident in her talent and ability, noting how her sterling musical reputation had established her as “first call for just about every freelance job which requires tympani.”[1] “This fact,” as she wrote, “is considered quite remarkable given that I am neither a male or white” in a field overwhelmingly dominated by both. Indeed, as an African American woman navigating a field of culture perceived and elevated through segregationist practices as “white man’s music,” she defied assumptions about who should play Western classical music; moreover, she played timpani, an orchestral percussion instrument typically understood in her profession as “male.” Jones was accustomed to performing under extraordinary scrutiny and skepticism — to being the only and often the first in the orchestral spaces she entered. Still, she had no interest in pursuing an audition in vain. And thus, she inquired: “Would there be any point to my coming out to audition? … I’m aware this is not the type of question to ask point blank, but at the same time it isn’t fair to travel so far and prepare for this with hopeful expectations if there is really no chance.”

In posing this question, Jones alluded to the history of racism that left nearly “no chance” for African American musicians to secure professional symphony orchestra positions, regardless of their training and ability. Orchestra auditions had long been inequitable, governed by the whims and outsized influence of autocratic conductors, favored principal players, and management, which failed to advertise openings publicly. While such practices could feel opaque and undemocratic to all musicians, for Jones, they emblematized the institutional racism of a musical culture that actively excluded her. She, alongside other African American musicians, had spent years advocating for fairer audition procedures. They organized, among other things, for “blind” auditions — auditions held behind a screen so the player’s identity would remain obscured.[2] Given the long history of segregation and racism both in and beyond the orchestral field, many Black musicians believed that only an anonymous audition process would allow for an impartial assessment of musical ability. By 1972, some orchestras, including SFS, had begun conducting preliminary rounds behind a screen. Recounting how she eventually won the position with SFS, Jones credits the screen for her success: “I wouldn’t have gotten the job if the screen wasn’t in play. I’m the recipient [laughing] of a thing that I worked on.”[3]

There is a burgeoning movement in Western classical music to upend traditional hierarchies and to reimagine this traditionally exclusive cultural field. These efforts have intensified in the post-George-Floyd era, as the classical music field grapples with its own complicity in anti-Black racism and white supremacy.[4] Jones, a 93-year-old classical musician, socialist, and self-proclaimed “stealth bomber” is a key figure whose life work of linking musical advocacy with social justice prefigures this current moment. In what follows, I ask what her struggles in San Francisco allow us to understand about the systemic racism embedded in the classical music field. Jones often despairs at the unchanged landscape of orchestras, lamenting that “to this day, you still have maybe one percent of Black musicians in all of the orchestras in the world.”[5] The barriers she faced in her career help us understand how this situation persists while also inserting into the historical record the efforts of working musicians like herself “who were willing to flare up and be an issue.”

Jones at the timpani in her home at Rossmoor, 2019. Photo by author.

I first met Jones years ago after attending a friend’s violin recital at Rossmoor, an active senior community located in the upscale suburban community of Walnut Creek in Northern California. An anomaly in the homogeneous whiteness of Rossmoor, I had already noticed Jones in the audience when she approached me after the concert, curious about my own presence. Gregarious and highly social, Jones quickly launched into a series of questions: “Had I heard of the San Francisco Symphony? Juilliard? Tanglewood?” As I later came to realize, Jones often introduces herself this way, highlighting these elite music institutions as a way to invite discussions into her past. Having researched the politics of race in classical music for Asian/Asian American musicians, I was intrigued by the fragments of her life she shared. I began visiting her for long conversations over meals. I knew Jones was engaged in a decades-long project of writing a memoir. This process led her to be introspective about her life and its meaning. But as her health began faltering, I began recording more formal oral interviews. Here, I focus on Jones’s musical experiences in San Francisco, a city that looms large in her own life narrative. When she arrived in San Francisco, the local press heralded her position with the orchestra as evidence of the city’s progressiveness. But Jones soon encountered significant backlash, including a well-publicized tenure denial. Drawing on her self-published memoir and extensive oral interviews, I highlight both the radical imagination that guides her life and the accumulated costs of pursuing artistic excellence in the face of persistent racial and gender exclusions.

Jones at the timpani, 1972. Photo by Don Jones, Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives.

San Francisco and the Battle for Tenure

A Harlem native, Jones planned to stay in New York for her entire career, viewing the city as the epicenter for both her racial advocacy and musical ambitions. But San Francisco sparkled with its reputation as a progressive cultural and activist oasis. She had never visited the “fabled city on the Bay” before auditioning for SFS but quickly fell in love, enraptured by the scent of eucalyptus leaves in Golden Gate Park, the ease of mild winters, and the colorful architecture that seemed to exude optimism and promise. She believed San Francisco represented a place less entrenched in racism. She left New York fully expecting to remain with SFS until her retirement.

Given the paucity of non-white musicians in any major symphony during the 1970s, Jones’s presence at SFS served as validation of the city’s progressiveness and difference. The symphony’s young Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa, already burnished this image. A coveted star on the rise when SFS hired him in 1970, Ozawa embodied a sense of newness and excitement. As Larry Rothe recounts in his history of the orchestra, music critics hailed Ozawa as the “Now Generation Conductor,” captivated by his youth, the novelty of his ethnicity, and his generally “hip” style: turtlenecks, Nehru jackets, long shaggy mane, medallions, and love beads. Jones fit seamlessly into this marketing of San Francisco and its symphony orchestra as a “break with the past” and part of the “now.”[6] Together, Jones and Ozawa heralded a new era; they projected a forward looking vision of classical music.

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Seiji Ozawa and members of the orchestra outside airplane on 1973 European/USSR Tour. Photograph by J.C. Watts and Partners Commercial Photographers, Courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Archives.

Jones’s orchestral debut in San Francisco began auspiciously with a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle, where the music critic Heuwell Tircuit proclaimed: “Major event — one not listed on the program — was the local debut performance of the Symphony’s new timpanist, Elayne Jones. Sensational! Absolutely sensational … Clean articulation, fine intonation, and technical savvy — a particularly fine roll, smooth as butter — rich tonal sensibility, and what was really mind blowing, she phrases.”[7] Jones included an excerpt of the review in the “Peace Day” holiday greeting sent to family and friends that year.

When I came across this holiday greeting nestled amongst the abundance of documents and ephemera accumulated in her home over the decades, it struck me in its promise and anticipation of a rosy future. Today, it remains a lingering snapshot of what could have been. Looking at it, I am reminded of William Cheng’s writing on loving music, how that love can be weaponized to dehumanize others, and the resulting “pain of unrequited love.”[8] Jones loved playing in a symphony orchestra. She reveled in the sounds of instruments coming together and creating palettes of such wondrous beauty. She maintained this love, even when its doors remained closed to her. Finally, Jones believed that her dedication to craft and musical excellence would be recognized and returned if not by love, than with tenure and membership in one of the nation’s most celebrated orchestras.

1972 “Peace Day” holiday greeting. Courtesy of Jones.

As is standard, Jones joined SFS on a two-year probationary period, after which she would be eligible for tenure. She knew that as an African American woman, the standard of excellence placed on her would exceed that of her white, male peers. She committed herself fully to the position. At the same time, she refused the additional labor of performing gratitude and subservience to her colleagues. If Jones’s family holiday greeting reflects exuberance and excitement for her family’s beautiful new adventure, the card she gave to her fellow SFS players centered her blackness. This interrupted the supposed racelessness of the orchestral space. As she recalls, her colleagues perceived the card to be political and intrusive: 

“When I got into the San Francisco Symphony that first year, people were giving out cards and everything. And I looked at all these cards and all these white angels and I thought, ‘White angels? Some angels must be Black.’ And that was when I discovered Marcus bookstore in San Francisco.[9]… Anyhow, so I got these cards with all these white angels. And I thought, ‘Why should I give my kids any cards with white angels? Well, if my kids can have white angels, their kids can have Black angels.’ So I went to Marcus and they had some Black Madonnas and I made some cards and I gave ‘em out. Well, you know, they protested that I’m imposing my beliefs on them. ‘Well, you’re imposing yours on me. Why do my children have to see white angels and your kids can’t see Black angels?’ Well, that may have been the downfall of myself – why I didn’t do too well with the orchestra. I should have just gone in and kept my mouth shut and not rocked the boat or made waves. And I guess this is why they had to get rid of me.”

“They had to get rid of me” — the tenure committee, SFS, the classical music establishment, and the white status quo most broadly. Decades later, Jones still chokes up discussing her tenure case, a trauma that loops in her mind, litigated repetitively to the same result.

In 1974, SFS evaluated eight players for tenure. Only the two non-white players, Jones and Japanese bassoonist Ryohei Nakagawa, received negative votes from the Player’s committee (the 7-person committee that votes on tenure). For Jones, losing her battle for tenure at SFS marked the symbolic end to her music career, extinguishing years of striving and ambition. Her years with San Francisco Opera Orchestra, where she earned tenure and worked for over 25 years, barely merits any mention in her memoir. This should not suggest that Jones does not have fond memories of her years with San Francisco Opera. By all accounts, she held some epic parties and made lifelong friends. But pit orchestras, tucked in the shadows under the stage (with the percussion section far back in its recesses) do not provide a visible platform. The singers on stage occupy the spotlight, while the orchestral musicians remain largely unseen, behind a perpetual screen of sorts. This may speak to why Jones found the most steady work in pit orchestras, where the concealment of her body allowed for some greater measure of inclusion. Prior to SF Opera, she played with New York City Opera for 12 years, where she was the first African American and female musician hired by that orchestra. As a musician quoted in a 1976 Los Angeles Times article about the absence of African Americans in symphony orchestras suggested, talented Black musicians, knowing how unwelcome they are in symphony orchestras, gravitate elsewhere, including “pit orchestras where our color won’t disturb sensitive souls who can’t believe that Afro-Americans can understand the great music of Western civilization.”[10]

What does inclusion look, feel, and sound like when the erasure of one’s body is part of the precondition for considering one’s admittance? In its most literal form, screened auditions distill music making to its aural element, redacting the body to create a blank slate for listening. Racial fantasies, projections, and stereotypes have long filled the gap between a musician’s body and their performance, a process that can unwittingly serve as self-fulfilling prophecies of racialized beliefs.[11] The screen interrupts these imaginations, anonymizing the body through a large black apparatus. But the screen is a mechanism designed to engender impartiality. It functions in the service of meritocracy rather than a commitment to diversity or racial justice.[12] And meritocracy’s relentless focus on individual effort and ability does little to address the systemic racism, discrimination, and history of segregation that sustain inequities in the orchestral field.

Popular media often extols the use of screens in orchestra auditions, pointing to the near 50% increase in the representation of women since its implementation and encouraging other industries to use similar anonymizing strategies to tackle implicit bias in hiring.[13] What is clear, however, is that the use of screens has done little to increase the representation of African American musicians in U.S. symphony orchestras. And in Jones’s case, the screen did little to change the conditions that precipitated its existence in the first place. As a Black woman occupying a principal position in SFS, an orchestra with no other African Americans and only 22 women (out of approximately 100 players) when she joined in 1972, Jones was, as she puts it: “treading on the toes of the white male, and that was really a bit too much for most of these people to deal with.”[14] 

Jones’s negative tenure vote and lawsuit made national news, spurred local protests, a letter writing campaign, and threats to withhold the symphony’s funding. She filed a lawsuit charging racial and sexual discrimination, which she dropped after receiving an additional provisional year and vote on tenure.[15] But when the second tenure vote came back negative, Jones filed another lawsuit. In 1977, her tenure battle ended when the courts dismissed the case.

The details of Jones’s tenure case involve skirmishes of power between multiple parties — unions, orchestral players, management, and Ozawa. Rather than relitigate the specific merits of the case, I focus, instead, on what the case reveals about the institutional history and culture of symphony orchestras. Part of the difficulty Jones encountered proving racism stemmed from long standing beliefs separating politics from the distilled performance of “the music itself” and understandings of the whiteness of symphony orchestras as incidental rather than instrumental to the assessment of musical excellence.

Jones spent decades repeatedly proving her ability and musical worth. When she learned of the shockingly low scores she received for her tenure, they felt like a personal assault to diminish and demean. For her first tenure vote, she received 177 out of a possible 700 points. Two tenure committee members gave her an insulting score of 1 out of 100. The vote the following year came in even lower. As a point of contrast, in the final round of Jones’s audition for SFS, she received 920 points out of a possible 1000 from the audition committee.[16]

In my interviews, Jones’s speech uncharacteristically sputters and pauses as she recalls the reasons used to justify her tenure denial:

“How all of a sudden could I be so bad? And these guys said…well, I…well, what was the thing with the trumpet player?…well, there was…he made a statement…What was?…there’s something silly they said I didn’t do…I try to block them out. That’s why I have difficulties remembering. … Gosh. Well. I mean it boils down to the fact, so I have to be perfect but nobody else around me is perfect?”

For Jones, the moving target of perfection placed on her felt unbearable. The criticism levied about her playing proved equally damaging to her psyche. She considered leaving the profession for good. “I’m a perfectionist,” she continues to muse, “so I will still think, was it my playing?” But perfection, while aspirational, is both elusive and subjective. This is particularly true for musicians playing at her high level of musicianship.

In the first public statement issued by the SFS Players’ Committee (the tenure committee) in September 1974 about Jones’s tenure denial, it concluded by referencing the hallowed space occupied by a symphony orchestra:

“A symphony orchestra is a rare and special thing. It is the unique product of our Western Musical Tradition, a tradition centuries old. It is made up of members who each embody decades of training and experience. It is not a work-force or an assembly line. It is a living thing, a musical and social organism. And like any living thing, it should be treated with care for its health, and respect for its accomplishments.”[17]

This language is, on the one hand, unsurprising in its description of a symphony orchestra as a “special thing” for a select few. Unlike other workplaces, a symphony orchestra exceeded such mundanities of labor and production. It represented both an enduring testament to centuries of European tradition and a delicately balanced living organism, whose inheritors stewarded its continued maintenance and care. On the other hand, such evocations of a symphony orchestra contained a clear message. Like the purported racelessness of meritocracy and the symphony orchestra, the players’ invocation of our “Western Musical Tradition” functioned as a proxy for whiteness and its continued preservation.

Would the outcome of Jones’s tenure vote have differed if she had muted her “zippy, boat-rocking personality,” acquiesced to claiming less space, and accommodated more to the status quo?[18] As she wrote in a letter to the supporters of her tenure: “Someone I trust confided to me that I was disliked because I didn’t conform to the subservient image of a black woman — and had stood up for my rights instead, with pride, and not with the soft humility some considered more befitting.” Rather than subservience, Jones embodied its mirror in her defiance and anger. At the same time, Nakagawa, by all accounts a “soft-spoken” and mild-mannered principal bassoonist who accepted his negative tenure vote without challenge, did not fare any better.[19] It is unsurprising how closely descriptions attached to Jones and Nakagawa’s outward personalities hew to the racial and gendered scripts placed on Asians and African Americans. In the end, the similar fates of Nagakawa and Jones speak to the bind that musicians of color face gaining inclusion and holding leadership positions in spaces of white supremacy. 

When Jones discusses racism, she often adds that white people do not understand what racism entails, viewing it as a matter of etiquette and hurtful comments rather than a system of acquiring and maintaining power. She, like Nakagawa, was a principal player — a first chair position, which represents a leadership position in the orchestra. This translated into greater pay and power than other section players in their workplace, not a special living thing. Their presence disturbed the “natural” order of the organism:

“I was a principal player, the person who is the head of a section and always paid above the rest of the section, first ever for an African American. I was experienced and I was competent; conductors and audiences acknowledged that. … This situation was compounded by the fact that the orchestra had a conductor and another principal player, who like me, were not of European origin. Having these three non-Europeans in the orchestra in leading positions was a little more than their egos could handle.”[20]

In Jones’s view, their collective visibility in positions of power precipitated their downfall. Nakagawa returned to Japan. And while Ozawa did not attribute his resignation from SFS in 1975 to the tenure disputes, he left as well, continuing his post with Boston Symphony Orchestra full time.

It is impossible to know how the fragility of white egos might have entered into the Players’ Committee’s vote on tenure. But an 8-page, typed document in the SFS archives, written in 1992 by a member of Jones’s second tenure committee, provides some clues. It is unclear why or to whom this treatise titled “the Elayne Jones Affair” was written. When I inquired, the archivist at SFS could offer no additional details. But as a defense of the symphony and the committee’s commitment to objectivity, it contains a litany of highly charged personal claims. The accusations levied against Jones included: the “distorted view” she had of her music ability and her tendency to blame career disappointments on racism (or sexism) rather than her own shortcomings; insinuations that affairs with music critics led to all of her positive newspaper reviews; and the multiple “cards in her deck” that Jones held due to her race and gender, effectively rendering SFS “impotent.” The document closes with the musician’s continued discomfort encountering Jones periodically in his everyday life — on the tennis courts in San Francisco and as a colleague at music festivals. As he writes: “she is the only person who has ever publicly charged me with being racist or sexist.” In the end, being accused of racism and sexism proved this musician’s most enduring slight.

Conclusion

For Jones, at 93, mulling over the events in her life can become a form of rehearsal. In our conversations, certain moments loop and rewind, an attempt to move past the racialized trauma of her tenure denial, only to return again to well-tread tales: playing with conductor Leopold Stokowski; her political advocacy; encountering segregation in St. Louis and Chicago; winning the position with SFS. The record skips and repeats, landing again and again on her tenure denial where the narrative inevitably stops. As she wrote to the supporters of her tenure battle: “I don’t know why I’ve worked so hard to climb up so far, because the long fall is so painful.”

In a roundtable discussion centered on the experiences of African Americans in classical music, Anthony McGill, principal clarinetist with the New York Philharmonic (and the only African American musician currently in that orchestra), eschewed the “exceptional talent” narrative for what it elides. Refusing to allow his own success story to serve as an acquittal of the field, he asserted: “I think it’s actually very important to highlight everybody else …[those] who are blocked from having that path. It’s important to look from that perspective as well.”[21]

How do we highlight this perspective in the institutional history of symphony orchestras? This is an archive of absence and of what could have been — aspirations thwarted, talents obstructed, careers re-routed, and spirits incalculably destroyed. But it is also, as Jones’s life shows us, an archive of defiance and refusal. Her life offers new insights into the past — a way to rethink the history and culture of American symphony orchestras through her visionary perspective. Tina Campt speaks of black feminist futurity as “a performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must.”[22] Making music and occupying space in sites where African American women have and continue to be excluded, Jones’ life compels us to grapple with the segregated histories that structure how we listen and see. “If my life matters,” Jones told me recently, “it’s because I have to make you think it matters.” Here I offer space to understand how her life matters for what it allows us to envision — new worlds and modes of imagining the orchestral field, music making, and the structures of power that sustain them.


[1] Letter to Verne Sellin from Elayne Jones. San Francisco Symphony archives

[2] For an incisive critique of the ableism contained in the term “blind” auditions, see William Cheng, Loving Music Till it Hurts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 63-64.

[3] Unless otherwise cited, all quotes from Jones come from interviews and conversations with the author.

[4] See, for example, Michael Andor Brodeur, “That sound you’re hearing is the classical music’s long overdue reckoning with racism,” Washington Post, July 16, 2020, Zachary Woolfe and Joshua Barone (interviewers), “Black Artists on How to Change Classical Music,” New York Times, July 16, 2020, James Bennett, “On Taking Lip [Service], WQXR blog, June 2, 2020, Aaron Flagg, Anti-Black Discrimination in American Orchestras, Symphony, Summer 2020.

[5] This statistic has remained relatively constant. A survey conducted in 1974 revealed African Americans to make up less than 1% of orchestras in the U.S. “Symphony Orchestras: A Bad Scene,” The Crisis, January 1975. In a 2014 survey by the League of American Orchestras, the figure had risen to just 1.8%.

[6] Rothe, Music for a City, Music for the World, 156-57.

[7] Heuwell Tircuit, “Show of Symphony Pride,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 1972.

[8] Cheng, Loving Music Till it Hurts, 104.

[9] Marcus Books (named after Marcus Garvey), currently located in Oakland, is the oldest independent Black bookstore in the United States.

[10] Dorothy Samachson, “Orchestras in the U.S. — Where are the Blacks?” Los Angeles Times, October 10, 1976.

[11] For more on racialized listening practices see, for example, Nina Sun Eidsheim, The Race of Sound (Durham: Duke UP, 2019); Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line (New York: NYU Press, 2016); Kira Thurman, “Performing Lieder, Hearing Race,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 72, Number 3, 825-865; Grace Wang, Soundtracks of Asian America (Durham: Duke UP, 2015).

[12] See Anthony Tommasini, “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions,” New York Times, July 16, 2020 and Cheng’s discussion of anonymous audition processes and meritocracy in Loving Music Till It Hurts, 63-104.

[13] Malcolm Gladwell writing on “blind auditions” in Blink, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2005 helped popularize the findings of the widely-cited article by Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse, “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians,” American Economic Review, vol. 90, no. 4, September 2000, 715-741.

[14] Charles Burrell, a double bassist, the first African American musician hired by SFS, performed with the orchestra from 1959-64. Jones’s lawyer claimed that Burrell was forced out, a narrative that differs from the official history of SFS, which recounts how earthquakes in the region prompted the bassist to return to more stable ground in Colorado. Larry Rothe, Music for a City, Music for the World, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2011, 134-35.

[15] The extent to which the courts did not consider race and gender discrimation as intersectional created further obstacles for Jones. In his sworn affidavit, Jerry Spain, President of Musician’s Union Local 6 offered the statistics on gender at SFS, noting that the orchestra employed more women musicians than any other major symphony. This fact was used to buttress the orchestra’s claim that it did not discriminate on the basis of sex. This defense recalls Kimberle Crenshaw’s argument that separating gender and race discrimination leaves no place for Black women. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989): 139-67

[16] For tenure during this period at SFS, a Players Committee (composed of 7 musicians) and the music director award points, with each side able to override or deny tenure. Musicians needed to receive a total of 351 votes to have the conductor’s vote added to their tally. As such, the low scores effectively sidelined Ozawa. The members of the audition and tenure committee were different, so do not represent a direct contrast (although the tenure committee is supposed to represent the collective view of the orchestra).

[17] Report to the 1974 ICSOM Convention from the San Francisco Symphony Players’ Committee. San Francisco Symphony archives.

[18] Quote from Arthur Bloomfield, “The Story That Won’t Go Away,” San Francisco Examiner, Sept 2, 1975.

[19] The narrative around Nakagawa’s tenure denial in the press and within SFS also suggested (falsely) that he was Ozawa’s former roommate in Japan and enjoyed a closeness to the conductor given their shared ethnicity. This narrative implied cronyism in his hiring. See Paul Hertelendy, “Jones: ‘How Good Do You Have To Be?’”Oakland Tribune, August 31, 1975. Although Nakagawa did not challenge his tenure denial, following Jones’s lawsuit he, too, was given a second vote.

[20] Jones, Little Lady wIth a Big Drum, 303.

[21]Learning to Listen” June 10, 2020.

[22] Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham: Duke UP, 2017), 17.

Grace Wang is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race through Musical Performance (Duke UP) and is currently collaborating with filmmaker Julie Wyman on a documentary film about Elayne Jones’s life in politics and music.

Excerpts

Chicana-Chicano Agonists

Frank P. Barajas 

Raised in a community culture of collective resistance, youth of the Chicana- Chicano generation—ranging from children old enough to recall earlier events to men and women in their early to mid-twenties—observed, if not participated in, the insurgencies of outfits such as the Community Service Organization (cso), Farm Worker Organizing Project, and United Farm Workers throughout the 1960s to mid-1970. Such groups role-modeled struggle, often militant, largely to realize just work conditions. With this community memory Chicana-Chicano agonists made their presence known on school and college campuses as news spread of student walkouts and protests throughout the Southwest. They also heeded the direct actions of peers in organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (sds) and the Black Student Union (bsu). This compelled many of the Chicana-Chicano generation to ask, “What are we doing?” As a result they embarked upon gutsy actions of their own. This chapter argues, in this regard, that the Chicana-Chicano generation of Ventura County exerted its collective agency on campuses and in their communities to mobilize campaigns of self-determination with a moxie all their own.

The World of the Chicana-Chicano Generation

Like their Mexican American generation predecessors, many Chicanas-Chicanos dreaded school, where in their early lives they suffered or witnessed violent punishments, both physical and psychological, at the hands of callous educators for using the language of their Spanish-speaking parents—an experience that destroyed their ability to excel. Such was the case for Yvonne De Los Santos from the unincorporated Ventura County community of Saticoy. Injured by such assaults, and the associated slings of poverty, the self-esteem of Del Los Santos and many of her peers deteriorated with each school day.1 The school system instantiated the inferiority of ethnic Mexicans with the curricular erasure of their historical presence in the nation as well as by systematically tracking them away from pathways to college to vocational shop classes for boys and home economics for girls.2

While ethnic Mexicans lived in rural citrus communities such as Fillmore, Rancho Sespe, and Saticoy, their experience also encompassed the suburban and urban. At Ventura County’s northeastern edge, the metropolis of Los Angeles was less than an hour’s drive away. Families traveled regularly to the big city and were visited by kin from places such as Boyle Heights, Compton, and the San Fernando Valley. So not all Ventura County Chicanas-Chicanos were yokels, at least completely. Having a rurban consciousness of the town and city, many of the Chicana-Chicano generation understood the spectrum of material deprivations of working-class people, having often accompanied family and neighbors to harvest chabacanos (apricots), nueces (walnuts), fresas (strawberries), ciruelas (plums), and other specialty crops up and down the state. While on the migrant circuit, they lived in varied accommodations from the standard to the inhumane—for example, cashiered Quonset huts, barns, stables, and leaky tents.3

Ironically, the poverty of ethnic Mexican families was underscored when family breadwinners—both men and women—obtained often unionized or public-sector jobs that provided not only adequate wages to cover food, shelter, and clothing but also unemployment, pension, health, and vacation benefits. When these heads of household were so employed, Chicana-Chicano children experienced the smell and feel of new clothes, shoes, and toys. Such work also made possible enrichment opportunities in organized sports and the performing arts. Indeed, De Los Santos recalled how her family enjoyed such comforts when her father had the good fortune to obtain a job as a unionized construction worker. As a result of the incremental elevation in their quality of life, Yvonne’s mother made sure her husband stayed current in his union dues, even when no work was to be had.4

Elders relayed to youth historical acts of collective resistance as children eavesdropped on the conversation of their parents and relatives. Unionism that organized all people provided ethnic Mexicans and their families with a system of recourse to challenge arbitrary dismissals, wage theft, and oppressive work conditions, as well as to fight for the prized benefits of health and unemployment insurance, vacation, and retirement. From these stories Chicanas-Chicanos internalized a sense of group dignity.5 Other families who may not have been directly connected to organized labor were involved in service organizations such as the Unión Patriótica Benéfica Mexicana Independiente, Las Guardianes de la Colonia, and CSO. Therefore, when Chicana and Chicano youth refused to tolerate injustice, they consciously or unconsciously referenced examples of the collective action of prior generations.6

Storms Brewing

The righteous indignation of Chicana-Chicano student clubs in Ventura County—which ranged and fluctuated in membership from ten to seventy students—stemmed from the overall subordination of the ethnic Mexican community. The diversity of club labels signified the pursuit of students to define themselves not only in terms of their ethnic identity but also in relation to their citizenship and political temperament. For example, before the creation of El Plan de Santa Barbara in the spring of 1969, many ethnic Mexican student clubs in Southern California named themselves, commensurate with the mentalité of the generation before them, United Mexican American Students (UMAS), as was the case at Oxnard High School. At Ventura High a similar club was labeled La Alianza Latino Mexicano (the Latino Mexican Alliance), which alluded to the organization’s pan-Latino outreach, with the simultaneous recognition that the ethnic Mexican student population was its core constituency. In the northeast plain of Oxnard, Rio Mesa High School formed the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) while Moorpark High formed the Mexican American Youth Club. Many group’s cognomens fluctuated as members weighed and debated labels based on their mission, member disposition, and the way they wished to be understood by people from the outside.7

No matter how student clubs of Ventura County identified themselves (although many ultimately adopted the MEChA epithet, the acronym for El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), they shared a commitment to support peers and those that followed them in the K–12 system. The evangelic promotion of education by Chicana-Chicano student clubs signifies the failure, if not the refusal, of educators to communicate high academic expectations for ethnic Mexican students or to support their aspirations. Chicana-Chicano youth also questioned their societal status as they defined their identity. To counter racist assumptions, Chicana-Chicano students embraced and publicly promoted their Mexican heritage as an iteration of Americanism. To bridge intraethnic differences, some clubs sought to support teachers with monolingual Spanish-speaking students.8

Indeed, the right to express themselves in the language of their community unimpeded served as a means by which Chicana-Chicano students asserted their amour propre, given that educators for decades prohibited ethnic Mexican students from speaking Spanish. This proscription entailed violence, to use Chicano studies professor Roberto D. Hernández’s definition, that entailed being forced to wear dunce hats as well as having their hands struck with rulers and their mouths washed out with soap.9 To resist these assaults, which were grounded in settler colonial notions of white supremacy, in the spring semester of 1969 UMAS at Channel Islands High School in South Oxnard, with a membership of about seventy-five, drafted a constitution that restricted, irrespective of race and ethnicity, its membership to Spanish-speaking students. This bold attempt to centralize their ethnic Mexican heritage, however, disqualified the club from school recognition, as the state’s education code mandated that clubs be open to all students. This compelled a faction of UMAS students and their supporters totaling about forty to picket the campus administration building in February 1969. UMAS protesters also sought redress in relation to instructor racism and the lack of ethnic Mexican teachers.10

In 1970 Oxnard High School (OHS) students protested racist practices on the part of teachers and the absence of support services. Part of the conflict involved the refusal of students to accept advisors from within the district, since they found the faculty and staff unsympathetic to their interests. To quell the controversy, officials of the Oxnard Union High School District (OUHSD) reached out to the Association of Mexican American Educators (AMAE) to appoint a volunteer advisor from the community. The issue of racism in the schools on the Oxnard Plain reemerged the next year when chairman of the Oxnard Community Relations Commission Wallace Taylor reported that one OUHSD teacher allegedly had been asked to resign or face dismissal for calling students “n—” and “dumb Mexicans.” Fellow commissioner William Terry announced that this was an example of the hostility that students faced. Terry also referenced how campuses restricted UMAS from becoming an official club and suspended students who wore such buttons.11

On September 16, 1971, Mexican Independence Day, OHS Mechistas joined farmworkers of the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) in protesting working conditions. Familiar with the staff at the UFW Office in La Colonia off Cooper Road, MECha president Peter Martínez suggested that the protestors march around the school site. When they did so, he and other Mechistas yelled to their peers on campus and in class, “Walk out! Walk out! Walk out!” And many did. High school administrators subsequently punished 40 student participants with detentions and suspensions. The next week half of OHS’s 2,100 students blew out. As this took place, Black and brown students fought white peers. After the initial outbreak, other brawls flared later that afternoon. Pent-up frustrations united those who walked out. The situation then escalated to the point that campus officials shut down the school at 1 p.m. on Thursday, September 23. Later that evening a free-for-all erupted at a football game between Channel Islands High School and Simi High. Consistent with other instances of social unrest that involved disaffection with white-dominated institutions, Principal Clifford Powell told the press that he was clueless as to the cause of the uprising.12

In early October 1971 a contingent of Black and Chicana-Chicano students of La Colonia barrio formed the Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) to address grievances of racism in the schools and the lack of teachers, staff, and administrators who were reflective of their community. Their demands also included the institution of Black and Chicano studies in the curriculum. mac met at the Juanita Elementary and protested the establishment of a district committee of students, teachers, district administrators, and community representatives that did not include them. They viewed the involvement of Oxnard City councilperson Salvatore Sánchez as an accommodationist who undermined the interests of minority constituents.13 Sánchez responded to mac’s opposition to his inclusion on the OUHSD committee by stating, “I consider it an honor to be considered a threat to the real enemies of our community I feel these people are not only hurting the image of the Mexican-American but are bringing disgrace to those who are truly trying to become a part of our mainstream.”14

A month after the conflicts at ohs, the campus administration office was firebombed on the evening of Saturday, October 30, 1971. The persons responsible marked the walls with “Racist Pigs” and “We Declar [sic] this a racist school,” initialed with “CLF,” assumed to stand for the Chicano Liberation Front.15 On November 2, 1971, the Oxnard Press-Courier published an editorial on the arson attack. In a tone of condescension, the newspaper faulted district officials for the adoption of a “rap-session approach” to address tension within its schools.16 In this dialogue, however, participants aired their grievances on topics of racist teachers throughout the district, arbitrary and unequal discipline meted out to minority students in comparison to their white counterparts, and the lack of minority faculty and administrators.17

Go to School, Stay in School

Chicana-Chicano students, however, did not limit their agency solely to the redress of grievances. In 1973 Channel Islands High’s MEChA—composed of 140 members, the largest campus club in the district—sponsored service activities in the community such as a clothing drive for the needy in Mexico’s border city of Tijuana. It also held car washes for the recreation center of La Colonia. To raise additional funds, the organization sponsored a semiformal tardeada and jamaica (a late afternoon social and charity sale, respectively). To fill the vacuum of a culturally relevant curriculum, the club produced a literary magazine titled Nuestra Raza that advanced ethnic pride by way of the arts.18 In the course of these activities, MEChA organizations networked with each other across the district. That same year MEChA at Rio Mesa High School launched its third annual tutorial program at El Rio Elementary and sponsored an annual Christmas food drive.19

Many students of these high schools graduated to continue their activism at universities and community colleges in and out of Southern California. In numerous instances the pipeline of barrio students to academic institutions involved an advance guard of students. Once on campus a consciousness of ethnic Mexican scarcity hit them hard. Indeed, when Diana Borrego Martínez of Santa Paula spotted Chicana-Chicano students at San Fernando Valley State College (sfvsc) in the late 1960s, she waited in front of their classes to introduce herself. In other instances, first-generation college students from the barrios and colonias of Southern California as well as afar congressed at de facto sanctuary spaces near student unions and cafeterias. Once Chicana- Chicano students discovered each other, often via restorative organizations such as UMAS and MEChA, they embarked upon recruitment drives in their home communities to cajole—if not shanghai—friends into college; such was their mission. Yvonne De Los Santos credited students active in Moorpark College’s MEChA for her matriculation. Once on campus, De Los Santos enjoyed the organization’s esprit de corps. Alienated, even traumatized, by the K–12 educational system, MEChA and Chicano studies courses cultivated a rich awareness of the worlds from which they came. Prior to the widespread institutionalization of Educational Opportunity Programs in California col- leges and universities, such organizations also served as the support structure for the recruitment, retention, transfer, and graduation of students.20

As a Vietnam veteran wounded by a land mine while on patrol, Jess Gutiérrez returned to Oxnard and found employment as a salesperson at a local car dealership. High school classmate and fellow veteran Armando López visited him one day at his work to recruit him for Moorpark College. At first Gutiérrez rebuffed the idea: he was older than most college students and had a family to support. But López was persistent, and he eventually convinced Gutiérrez to enroll after explaining that he could receive more income as a full-time student with his veteran benefits and other financial aid than at his current job.21

A snowball effect of matriculation resulted. Once politicized, Chicana- Chicano college students recruited friends in and out of Ventura County. Many that enrolled did not survive academically for a number of reasons: some (especially men) due to a severe lack of preparation, confidence, finances, and the inability to envision the rewards of a higher education. However, success stories did emerge. The first wave of Chicana-Chicano students ultimately turned the corner scholastically with the committed support of not only their peers but also empathetic faculty and staff mentors from all backgrounds who were sensitive to the debilitating harm of interlocked white supremacist systems of education, labor, and politics. Students considered by many to be academic throwaways went on to become public and private sector professionals, which afforded them and their progeny improved life chances in terms of health, superannuation, the accumulation of assets, and the life of the mind.22

The Community College Connection

In the fall of 1967, Moorpark College opened its doors. To promote enrollment, officials of the Ventura County Community College District contracted a vendor to transport students from the communities of Fillmore, Piru, Santa Paula, and Oxnard to both Moorpark College and Ventura College. Chicana- Chicano students from Oxnard nicknamed the service the “barrio bus.” A cohort of youthful and politically liberal faculty at the new campus—many of them recent graduates of the University of California, Los Angeles (ucla), to the south, and the University of California, Santa Barbara (ucsb), to the north—embraced all students, especially the historically underserved.23 Once out of their provincial environs, Chicana-Chicano community college students interacted to an extended degree with peers from a spectrum of ethnicities and economic backgrounds.

By the start of 1968, Oxnard Brown Berets López and Roberto Soria, the brother of Oxnard school desegregation advocate and community leader John Soria and father of the principal plaintiffs of the desegregation case, engaged peers in the formation of culturally relevant programs at Moorpark College. The Berets and Mechistas invited ucsb professor of economics and Democratic candidate for Congress Stanley Sheinbaum to speak on campus.24 In October 1968 the Berets attended a conference on poverty hosted at Ventura College. López, as the group’s prime minister of education, organized a peace- ful demonstration to protest neglect on the part of county social workers in relation to the needs of ethnic Mexican communities. As López spoke, fellow Brown Berets held placards that read “Less Talk and More Action” and “Viva la Raza.” The Berets also presented a slideshow complemented by music and narration that detailed the Chicano perspective on poverty in Ventura County.25 As one of its main goals, high school and college MEChA organizations promoted as well as reinforced a sense of ethnic Mexican pride to extirpate any stigma internalized in some of its members by way of settler colonial perspectives in schools and a popular culture that not only erased the historical presence of ethnic Mexicans but also portrayed them in the present as outsiders, and often criminal at that. The provenance of self-negation, moreover, stemmed from decades of institutionalized racism and violence. Mechistas bolstered the promotion of amour propre with community-building programs in and outside their campuses. Toward this objective, Ventura County MEChAs embarked upon tutorial programs to serve grade school students. In an interview with Moorpark College’s student newspaper, the Raiders Reporter, López described MEChA’s goal as “to develop the child’s self-concept and identity.” Soria, in turn, asserted the importance of bilingual education to maintain and reinstate pride in young ethnic Mexican students.26

Raising consciousness of the challenges historically faced by ethnic Mexican communities served as another goal of MEChAs in Ventura County.27 In November 1969 the Raiders Reporter spotlighted the student activism of Soria, who had suffered the loss of a brother in the Vietnam War, experienced economic deprivations associated with migrant life, and who dropped out of high school to work in the fields to support his family.28 Soria’s life lessons, coupled with his activism, ballasted a constructive indignation and motivation to challenge societal injustices. Given that Moorpark College was a startup campus that supported curricular innovation with few-to-no faculty with academic training in the Mexican American experience, the administration afforded Soria, López, and other students opportunities to formally teach classes and deliver lectures to their peers on the history, culture, and politics of the Chicano community.29

Be One, Bring More than One

El Plan de Santa Barbara (drafted by students, faculty, and staff from different institutions at ucsb in the spring of 1969) served as the manifesto for Chicanas- Chicanos of all ages, as it delineated the goals and objectives of MEChA

. A central tenet of El Plan guided all in academe with the advancement of education in the community. Ventura County Chicanas-Chicanos actualized this mandate by visits to elementary schools to volunteer their time as tutors. For example, Oxnard Brown Berets Francisco DeLeon, Roberto Flores, Andrés and Fermín Herrera, and Armando López visited the elementary schools of Juanita and Ramona, in the heart of La Colonia, to conduct culturally relevant puppet shows. The Brown Berets of Oxnard also implemented a tutorial program in the district. The Berets then worked with the administration of Moorpark College to establish a program of recruitment and support services. In an era of a white, middle class–focused curriculum that featured “Janet and Mark” and “Dick and Jane” narratives, the Berets created curricula that spotlighted the ethnic Mexican experience.30

Even before the creation of El Plan in 1969, Chicana-Chicano students at the colleges and universities of Moorpark and Ventura, sfvsc, ucla, and ucsb also went back to the barrios and colonias from which they came to encourage family and friends to become activists and obtain a higher education—not only for the sake of their own edification and empowerment, but that of their communities. In February 1969 López, while a student at Moorpark College, spoke at Rio Mesa High School to share with students the goals and objec- tives of the Brown Berets, an agenda that consisted of social change by way of the promotion of Mexican American studies, the establishment of a citizens’ police review board, and the promotion of better communication with the community. In relation to direct action, López stressed the organization’s commitment to a nonviolent philosophy.31

Later in November 1969, ucsb Mechistas Daniel Castro, Castulo de la Rocha, and Javier Escobar drove forty-five minutes south to meet with the members of Ventura College MEChA to discuss, among other challenges, the state’s high school dropout rate among ethnic Mexicans. The three guest speakers also noted that of those that managed to graduate, many were academically ill prepared, particularly in comparison to their Black and white counterparts. The next year Tim Vásquez of UCSB’s MEChA visited Ventura College to recruit Mechistas to join him in Coachella Valley to assist the United Farm Workers in stopping scabs from picking grapes during the strike. Vásquez also urged the Mechistas to participate in the moratorium march to be conducted in Santa Barbara that May.32

To motivate Chicana-Chicano students to stay in school and ultimately obtain degrees from the systems of the California State College and the Uni- versity of California, Flores, as an Oxnard Brown Beret and ucla premed student, worked with a newly established Educational Opportunity Program (eop) to create in 1968 a nonprofit work-study project titled the University Study Center (usc). Based in Oxnard, usc placed approximately thirty high school and college students within public agencies. This had two functions: first, to provide students with incomes while they obtained on-the-job training in professional environs, and, second, to introduce students to white-collar careers that required college degrees. In some cases Chicana-Chicano activists virtually ushered family and friends off barrio streets to enroll them in such programs. eop slots had opened up at universities and colleges as a result of protests such as the walkouts in East Los Angeles that year; it was now incumbent upon activists who demanded this inclusion to fill them. A number of the individuals who had no plans of going to college due to a multitude of challenges (e.g., school tracking, preparation, maturity, economics, family obligations) failed to succeed, while others initially struggled to survive and then flourished as they created social networks of support on campus.33

But the USC project was not just for the college-bound. It also served professionals who sought to enhance cultural competencies to effectively serve the ethnic Mexican community. For example, UCSB offered an extension course in the summer of 1969 titled Mexican-American: Past, Present, and Future, conducted at the Juanita school by Brown Beret members Fermín Herrera, Flores, and López along with Professor Rodolfo F. Acuña of SFVSC.34

A Space for Chicano Studies

In April 1969 MEChA, with a membership of approximately forty, met with Moorpark College president John Collins to propose the implementation of a curriculum relevant to the experience of ethnic Mexicans as well as recruit- ing and admitting more students from their communities. To retain students MEChA called for the college’s employment of ethnic Mexican faculty, staff, and administrators. Students would endorse the appointment of candidates and recommend their termination if they failed to serve students.35 President Collins supported MEChA’s proposals. His actions contrasted with that of campus presidents at Ventura College, California State College Los Angeles, California State College at Fresno, and San Diego State College who rejected Chicano studies. Many campus presidents labeled this new field as ideologically particular in scope as opposed to universal and therefore not a legitimate academic course of study, due to its perceived Marxist radical politics.36

Nonetheless, in the fall of 1969, Moorpark College recruited its first director of the Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program: Amado Reynoso, who held degrees from San Diego State and San Francisco State.37 Moorpark College Mechistas and Reynoso, as their faculty advisor, wasted no time making its mark within El Movimiento in Southern California. In November 1969 they organized a one-day conference of workshops and lectures. People from other community colleges, private and public four-year institutions, and high schools attended. In addition to establishing a support network, conference organizers strategized how to cultivate Mexican American studies while increasing the matriculation and graduation of ethnic Mexicans in high schools and colleges.38 President Collins, with his newly appointed MAS director, opened the program with a welcome to attendees and an introduction of the conference schedule. Jesus Chavarria of UCSB and Dr. Acuña spoke on the relevancy of Chicano studies. Raquel Montenegro of the Association of Bilingual Educators made an address on “The Broken Promises of the American Dream.” After the first round of speeches, workshops addressed topics regarding the recruitment of ethnic Mexican staff and students, financial aid, support services, and curriculum development.39

The event, however, did not escape controversy. Campus food services erred in their catering by including table grapes at a time when César Chávez’s National Farm Workers Union imposed an international boycott of the product to pressure growers for a collective bargaining agreement. Students from Los Angeles rebuked Moorpark Mechistas for the gaffe. Later, East Los Angeles College MEChA wrote a scathing open letter to President Collins expressing the offense taken. The letter pointed to the failure of “white society” to join the effort of pro- test of the time. Instead, the letter continued, “white society” issued an insult.40

Despite the table grape goof, Moorpark College MEChA pulled off a successful conference, and the succor that President Collins extended did not go unrecognized. In April 1970 the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) of Ventura County saluted President Collins at its annual awards banquet for doing more for the Chicano than anyone else. This was a well- deserved honor, as President Collins, judging from the reports in the Raider Reporter, consistently supported the advancement of Mexican American studies and the hiring of faculty and staff of Mexican origin and was sensitive to the needs of students.41

¡Despierta! (Wake Up!)

The recognition of a gracious campus president such as Collins was of particular import, as Chicana-Chicano students did not enjoy such help at the sister campus of Ventura College with Ray E. Loehr as president. Moreover, the direct actions of Black students awakened many students unaware of, or initially unconcerned with, broader national currents of protests. At the Area IX Junior College Student Association Conference in October 1968, for example, Black students accused the association of failing to address unnamed problems important to their minority peers, then stormed out in protest. Two months later Black students presented President Loehr with a petition bearing 280 student signatures that demanded the recruitment of Black faculty. A meeting resulted after a rumor circulated that Black students planned to stage a protest at the college’s homecoming football game if their demands were not met.42

In the following spring of 1970, BSU spokesperson Larry Ellis presented President Loehr with a list of demands that not only called for the hiring of Black professors but also instituting an independent Black studies department with a curriculum transferable to four-year colleges and universities. As part of the campus’s overall infrastructure, the students called for a Black studies section in the campus library. And, to support the success of students, the BSU listed the need for Black counselors, financial aid administrators, and staff employees.43 The next year at Moorpark College, in October 1971, thirty Black students cleared the library’s bookshelves in protest of the campus’s refusal to hire a Black secretary for an open position. Like Chicana-Chicano students at Moorpark College earlier that March, the BSU held an on-campus conference with the goal “to create a black awareness within the community while encouraging young blacks toward higher education.” Oxnard resident, activist, and founding member of the cultural organization Harambee Uhuru (Swahili for Freedom Fights), William Terry was one of the several speakers at the conference.44 As the BSU took direct action, Chicana-Chicano students endorsed their demands. Witnesses of broader protest movements in support of farmworkers and against the war in Vietnam, as well as of the student blowouts in East Los Angeles, Ventura County Chicanas-Chicanos reflected upon the needs within their communities. Like the Ventura County CSO and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People earlier, the BSU and MEChA exerted independent, yet parallel, pressure upon the administration of Ventura College to meet the needs of their students. This resulted in the appointments of Isaiah “Bubba” Brown and Ray Reyes as counselors at the Minority Student Center (MSC) in the winter of 1971.45

Networks in the Southern California region tethered together the activism of Chicanas and Chicanos at various high schools, colleges, and universities. Young men and women traveled roads and freeways to visit campuses, cruised lowrider cars on main streets, socialized at parks, and dated love interests in other communities. They voraciously read alternative newspapers and magazines that spoke to their experience: Con Safos, El Chicano, La Causa, El Gallo, El Grito, El Malcriado, and La Raza Magazine, to name a few. These publications, and others similar to them, established translocal, shared experiences.46

Other students participated in landmark protests and conferences such as East Los Angeles’s Chicano Moratorium, La Marcha de la Reconquista, the Santa Barbara Conference of El Plan that was named after it, the protest marches of the United Farm Workers, and the Denver Youth Conferences. As Chicana- Chicano students listened to the speeches of anti–Vietnam War protestors such as sfvsc student Gilbert Cano, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez, and others, they were inspired by the defiant messages that contextualized their sense of history, mythology, and status. People who participated in or observed these events found their own experiences with racist systems of oppression affirmed; in other words, they discovered that their grievances were not imagined or individualized. This in turn inspired them to invite iconic figures of El Movimiento to their own campuses. And if they could not attract big-name movement people, Mechistas at Moorpark and Ventura College brought in local academics and activists to interpret and comment on the events of their time.

In oral history interviews, Manuela Aparicio Twitchell of Fillmore, Yvonne De Los Santos of Saticoy, and Roberto Flores and Jess Gutiérrez, both from Oxnard, expressed with pride the work they had performed in programming Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day celebrations. Collectively, organizers developed their leadership skills, which entailed the formal submis- sion of proposals for campus authorization and funds as well as the logistical navigation of bureaucratic systems. In the process Mechistas developed cross-cultural alliances with other students to support peers on Associated Students boards for the sponsorship of their events. And, on the day of a program, Mechistas enhanced their talents at public speaking by serving as emcees and, at times, filled in for no-show guests.

For the campus’s Cinco de Mayo Celebration of 1971, Moorpark College MEChA hosted Reies López Tijerina Jr. (the son of the land grant activist in New Mexico) and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales. The pair were part of a two-day program of speeches and performances that included Chicano poet Alurista, guitarist-folklorist Suni Paz, and Mariachi Uclatlan from ucla. An evening concert featured the music of the Thee Midniters and Dark Corner.47 The next year MEChA successfully booked Reis López Tijerina himself. But, that time, the organizers would add a twist to the celebration. Instead of a two-day program, the event took place over three days. And, in the spirit of El Plan de Santa Barbara, of bringing barrio communities to colleges and universities and vice versa, Moorpark College MEChA scheduled events on campus and in the communities of Oxnard and Santa Paula. The program entailed talks by, again, Alurista, and movement leaders of the Mexican American generation such as labor and immigrant rights activist Bert Corona, Armando Morales of ucla and author of the book on police violence Ando sangrando, as well as Sal Castro, who mentored student leaders in the East Los Angeles blowouts. Teatro Aztlán of SFVSC and the college’s own Teatro Quetzalcoatl performed actos, or short plays.48

It was at Moorpark College that Gutiérrez became further politicized, both by the zeitgeist and the knowledge he learned. Coupled with the counterhegemonic perspectives espoused by movement speakers and that of his peers, the inchoate body of Chicano studies literature expanded his worldview. And although Moorpark College did not have a Chicano studies degree, MEChA served as the focal point of support for first-generation college students.49 Gutiérrez had been so inspired by his involvement in Moorpark College’s MEChA that he ran for a seat on the politically conservative OUHSD Board of Trustees.50

Minority Student Center

Once matriculated on college campuses, Chicanas-Chicanos noticed BSU’s demand for the curricular inclusion of their own experience and support ser- vices. This prompted them to develop similar petitions. At Ventura College, for example, both Black and Chicana-Chicano students made one demand in a parallel manner, for a minority students center. Their call converged in a meeting with the college’s administration in May 1970. BSU and MEChA also pushed simultaneously, yet separately, for tutorial services to advance the retention of first-generation college students.51

Starting in 1972 the two organizations also collaborated each year in a Christmas charity fashion show. The proceeds from the event went toward the distribution of food baskets for the needy. Once the campus established its Minority Student Center, the two clubs jointly planned other programs. In one case they sponsored a weeklong series to educate the campus about the history and culture of their respective heritages. Spokespersons from each club articu- lated two outcomes. For example, in relation to space, counselor and MEChA faculty advisor Reyes stated, “We will convert the [patio] area into a Mexican marketplace in an effort to reproduce the festival that is held in Huachemango (a Mexican city) each year at this time.” And in relation to the analogous experi- ences of Blacks and Chicanas-Chicanos, Larry Ellis stated, “The black and brown peoples are deprived culturally and educationally here and this is our chance to do our own thing and we want people to know what we are and can do.”52

But the existence of the Minority Student Center unsettled Louis Zitnik, who felt that it segregated people and compromised notions of racial equality. For Zitnik inequities among racial groups were financial. As a result he called for unity among the economically disadvantaged, as race, he thought, only served to disunite people with common interest.53 Vietnam veteran and student Arnulfo Casillas offered a response that complicated the notion of people of color being a minority in Ventura County, pointing out that several communities did not have white-majority populations: for instance, Moorpark, with 60 percent of its residents of Mexican origin, and both Fillmore and Santa Paula, with 50 percent of its residents as such. To appreciate the true character of segregation, Casillas referenced the spatial isolation that ethnic Mexicans experienced in the barrios of La Colonia in Oxnard, the Avenue in Ventura, Grant Avenue in Santa Paula, El Campo of Saticoy, and El Campito of Fillmore. It was in such places that people failed to enjoy the services they paid in taxes that white-dominant communities enjoyed. Casillas highlighted that this contributed to Chicana- Chicano students not graduating from or dropping out of high school at a rate of 50 percent. This exclusion also evidenced itself in the Vietnam War, where Chicano military servicemen consisted of 20 percent of the casualties when they only made up 5 percent of the population in the Southwest.54

The Minority Student Center gained greater visibility when MEChA, with the support of the Associated Students, convinced President Loehr to permit the installation of a mural on the building in the spring of 1973 in time for the campus’s annual Cinco de Mayo celebration. Created by Blas Menchaca, the mural consisted of a gendered mosaic of tiles with images of patriarchal icons of Mexican history Joaquin Murrieta, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Benito Juárez, Jose María Morelos, Cuauhtéhmoc, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Che Guevara below the rain god Tlaloc.55

Veni, Vidi, Vici Chicana-Chicano Style

Once a critical mass of Chicana-Chicano students found their way to college, they struggled to create a conducive campus culture. Ultimately, with the guid- ance of Mexican American generation mentors such as Reynoso and Reyes, they accomplished this. One objective entailed the promotion of Mexican culture on campuses. Another sought to create additional structures of support like the Minority Student Center, as many Chicana-Chicano students did not have the scholastic preparation and financial means to sustain their retention on campus. Then there were students that did not understand the connection of a higher education with improved life chances in employment, housing, health care, as well as the intergenerational transfer of social capital. This being the case, it was critical for Chicana-Chicano students—with the support of faculty, staff, and administrators who, in effect, served in loco parentis—to create systems that holistically developed students.

On March 19, 1969, the Raiders Reporter published an unsigned essay titled “Chicano Speaks: The Mexican Fiesta—a Chance to ‘Discharge the Soul.’” The anonymous writer (or collective) described cultural events as the expression of the community’s soul in an oppressive society that sought the eradication of the ethnic Mexican presence. The essay went on to proclaim, profoundly, that “the fiesta is a revolt, a revolution    The fiesta unites everything: good and evil, day and night and the sacred and profane.”56 Therefore, music, theater, and lectures promoted by MEChA in Ventura County middle schools, high schools, and colleges enabled Chicana-Chicano students to declare a restorative cultural pride. This often occasioned the blare of trumpets and the strum of string instruments (violins, el guitarrón, and vihuela) as mariachi sang the songs of Mexico in the heart of campuses during the midday, when students walked to and from class. Within a hegemonic context in which all that was Mexican was subordinated—if not at best considered mediocre compared to the standards of European culture—the open-air reverence for Mexican traditions by ethnic Mexican students born or raised in the United States was, as the unsigned Raider-Reporter letter of March 19 proclaimed, a revolutionary act.

At Ventura College music professor Frank A. Salazar and his Spanish faculty colleague Francis X. Maggipinto worked with Chicana-Chicano students in 1968 to develop a Mexican-style Christmas program that would, in the words of Salazar, “totally immerse” the campus in the traditions of Mexico. The Mexican American generation professors and students invited children from the Ventura barrio of the Avenue and Santa Paula to instill in them not only a unique sense of Chicana-Chicano culture but also to sow semillas (seeds) on the importance of a college education.57

The promotion of música mexicana included songs of the 1950s. This finessed the inclusion of intergenerational ethnic Mexican cohorts of migrant prove- nance. It also integrated others equally influenced by the sounds of Motown and r&b. Raves encompassed all students attracted to this genre of music, as the mellifluous Brown sounds demanded attention. As this took place, Mechistas recruited members and won over intergroup supporters. Mechistas of Ventura College took this one step further when they obtained an hour of weekly airtime on kacy radio, hosted by Bernardo Larios, titled La Hora del Chicano. By way of the sponsorship of such programing, Mechistas not only developed culturally responsive environs, but also advanced the goodwill of their institutions in the barrios and colonias from which they came, making their schools truly “community” colleges.58

The promotion of Mexican cultural expressions also served as a praxis of restoration. Celebrations of El Diez y Seis de Septiembre (Mexican Indepen- dence Day), Cinco de Mayo, and Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), for example, contested the dominant cultural view that depicted ethnic Mexicans as perpetual “aliens.” In the spring of 1973, Casillas expressed this perspective when he stated, “When we go into the celebration of Cinco de Mayo, may we remember that this is not a foreign culture, but one that is very much a part of all that we have seen and experience during our lifetime, in our history.”59 Renascent celebrations in Ventura County schools and colleges elevated the profile of ethnic Mexican students, particularly those active in MEChA. This not only attracted a steady cycle of new members but also inspired Mechistas

to pursue campus leadership opportunities. Two such instances involved the election of representatives. The first consisted of the campus election of homecoming queens at Moorpark and Ventura College; the second entailed the election of Associated Students (as) board members at both campuses. In 1969 Manuela Aparicio ran for homecoming queen at Moorpark College and was voted the runner-up. When Chicana-Chicano peers asked why she entered the competition, she answered why not. In the fall of 1970, Jeanette Velasco represented MEChA as a candidate for homecoming queen at Moorpark College. She ran against Luedora Wallace. Interestingly, the newspaper was silent on who won this race. Two years later Aurelia Aparicio, Manuela’s sister, won the title of homecoming queen. At Ventura College, in the fall of 1969, MEChA successfully campaigned for Betty Luna to be homecoming queen. The next year Jayne Lopez of Santa Paula was one of three elected by the students as finalists. The other two were BSU candidate Debbie Shelton and Maureen Cooney, sponsored by the Associated Men’s Student club. The football team made the final decision, and, again, the campus newspaper was silent on who the team chose.60 But the actual outcome of who won was secondary to the candidacies of Chicanas and Black women to run for elected positions—putatively the privilege, if not the right, of white contestants.

In 1969 MEChA member Richard Hernandez served as president of Moor- park College’s ASB. At the end of his term, he endorsed the candidacy of fellow Mechista Angel Luevano, who won, as his successor. In 1972 Zeke Ruelas was elected speaker of parliament at Moorpark College.61 But the most pronounced expression of the actualization of power by Chicana-Chicano students took place at Ventura College. At the behest of their Mexican American generation advisor, Ray Reyes, who mentored them to be a politically active and savvy organization that administered budgets, as opposed to just being a social club, Ventura College MEChA students held tremendous influence over the as board for much of the 1970s. But in 1975 it achieved its zenith as the school newspaper focused on MEChA’s representative majority on the as board. A Crystal City moment, however, occurred that spring semester, when MEChA members and MEChA-endorsed candidates swept the as election. In addition, nine other nonexecutive posts were held by MEChA members. Graciela Casillas, the younger sister of Arnulfo, won the position of ASB president. Pleased by the result, Casillas graciously expressed her appreciation for MEChA’s support and promised to represent the interests of all students. But fellow Mechista and Casillas’s predecessor as the outgoing ASB chair, Manuel Razo, was not so politic; he brazenly stated to the school reporter, “Just put ‘MEChA wins, honkies lose.’ . . . It’s only obvious that MEChA is the strongest organization on campus. We are the power structure of the college.” Similarly, Jesus Hernández proclaimed after winning the seat of ASB vice-president, “My number one priority is MEChA members needs Mi raza primero. We came, we saw and we conquered.” Like Casillas, though, Lupe Razo, who won the post as ASB secretary, more inclusively expressed her appreciation for MEChA’s support and vowed to work on the behalf of not only Chicanos but also all women.62 In response to the subsequent backlash, MEChA embarked upon political damage control. In March 1975 it held a weekend conference. In an interview with reporter for the Pirate Press, Jaime Casillas, the brother of Graciela and Arnulfo, stated that the purpose of the event was to recruit new members and to address false ideas about MEChA, since the remarks of Razo and Hernán- dez confirmed in the eyes of many their view of the organization as exclusive, aggressively militant, and resolute in the reconquista of the Southwest. For the most part, however, the goals and objectives of the organization were moderate, inclusive of all people, regardless of ethnicity and race. Most of all the organization was reformist in character, in terms of its pursuit of progressive change within extant institutions.63

But the braggadocio of two of its members made MEChA politically vulnerable. Ventura College’s Alpha Gama Sigma (AGS) ran a slate of candidates of its own in the spring 1975 election for the executive posts of the as board. In previous elections incumbents often ran unopposed. But this cycle was different; AGS ran against Mechistas to diminish, if not demolish, the organization’s power. As the campaign commenced, both AGS and MEChA candidates denied that their election would result in their favoritism of one group of students over others.64 Michael C. Dill, AGS candidate for the Office of Finance, who ran against Mechista Tony Valenzuela, wrote a letter to the editor right before the election. He commended MEChA for the organization’s engagement in campus affairs and how its activism inspired him to run for the as board to break its political domination. The goal was not to eliminate completely MEChA’s presence on the as board, but he desired more balanced representation.65 In the end, however, the Mechistas lost all seats on the board of student government.66

A Contretemps of Identities

In addition to collective actions of self-determination on campuses and in their communities, Chicana-Chicano youth asserted their new identity in a more individualistic fashion in print distinctive from their elder counterparts with Mexican American or Mexicanist identities. Combined, local movements and the propaganda of the larger movimiento influenced the ways in which young men and women viewed themselves as a people. The term “propaganda” in U.S. culture connotes a certain stigma of bias and rhetoric; in the tradition of Mexican culture, however, propaganda involves public relations in the dissemination of values. In this regard Chicana-Chicano youth challenged those who questioned the identity they espoused. This debate, often heated, emerged in the letters to the editor within campus and community newspapers.

An extended conversation commenced on the label “Chicano” when the Oxnard Press-Courier reported in January 1970 California State College Hay- ward’s implementation of a Chicano studies program. This raised the ire of city of Ventura resident R. De Leon, who emphasized the pejorative provenance of the moniker. De Leon argued that people who identified themselves as Chicano desired attention and held a “chip on their shoulders.” Although De Leon respected the right of individuals to identify themselves as they wished, he challenged the newspaper’s use of the label to describe the Mexican American community, since individuals like himself rejected it. The next month Jerry R. Rosalez, like De Leon, opposed the daily’s identification of ethnic Mexicans as Chicano; this, in his opinion, referenced a group of impostors.67 In the same edition of the newspaper that printed Rosalez’s letter, however, Faye Villa, a resident of Ventura County’s city of Camarillo, challenged De Leon’s perspective. She asked rhetorically if he had taken a poll to determine that most ethnic Mexicans disliked the label “Chicano.” Villa went on to contend that the Anglo use of the label “Spanish” was a euphemism and rebutted the notion that ethnic Mexicans were not different than “anyone else.” In fact, Villa held, ethnic Mexicans suffered racism in the United States due to their appearance; she concluded her letter by stating that he should “accept it [being of a distinct ethnicity] and live with it—happily.”68

Daniel E. Contreras did exactly this. The next day the Oxnard Press-Courier published a letter that defined his sense of the “Chicano” soubriquet. Contreras referenced the infamous opinion of Judge Gerald S. Chargin, who espoused a racist characterization of a Chicano youth convicted of raping his sister. Contreras mentioned three ways in which the Chicano, as a community, was “exercising his shoulders.” One was by an unnamed Chicano lawyer working to have Chargin removed from the bench. The second entailed the recruitment of Chicanos to go onto college. Third, Contreras concluded, “in essence, to be a Chicano is to believe and live as one. One is born a Mexican but one becomes a Chicano by choice.  I don’t relish encounters with people with chips on their shoulders, but it’s just as bad, if not worse, dealing with people with no shoulders at all.”69 Under the pseudonym “Nomas Milando” (roughly translated to “just observing”), a writer in the Voice of the People section, published on February 7, responded to the contribution of Rosalez. He contextualized the label in relation to the need for ethnic Mexicans to be prideful of their heritage within an “Anglo society” that denigrated every aspect of their being. Furthermore, to compel self-erasure, society forced ethnic Mexicans to identify with the moniker of “Spanish American.” But what was important was that people determine their own identity. In fact, Nomas Milando contended, an internalized white supremacy grounded Rosalez’s objection to the word “Chicano.” This entailed the portrayal of ethnic Mexicans as criminally inclined, if not in fact criminal, and lazy. He also referenced a statement made by deceased senator Dennis Chávez of New Mexico that when Mexican Americans won a congressional medal of honor for valor, they were labeled “Latin American”; when they won political office they were “Spanish American”; and, when unemployed, society tagged them as “Mexican.” Nomas Milando concluded, “So with this in mind, Mr. Rosalez, please do not lose sight of the ‘real’ problem. Direct your energies to stamp out the existing cancer [i.e., racism] of our society and do not waste your time bickering over an idiomatic term.”70

As part of the ongoing contretemps, the Oxnard Press-Courier published an essay by Contreras in late February titled “Chicano Power Defined.” Contre- ras referenced the song “Chicano Power” by the East Los Angeles band Thee Midniters to argue that the epithet encompassed all ethnic Mexicans with a U.S. life experience—at least with persons who identified as Mexican in the first place. “Chicano Power” signified the centrality of an education for the well-being and advancement of the ethnic Mexican community; a relevant curriculum would instill a positive self-concept and, in the process, challenge negative stereotypes perpetuated by a white, ethnocentric media. Contreras credited the Brown Berets for their promotion of cultural pride, like the Black Panthers. For him the Brown Berets were “tough-minded individuals” who struggled by way of direct action for positive social change.71

The initial letter of R. De Leon that protested the Oxnard Press-Courier’s use of the “Chicano” appellation predated by two weeks an op-ed by former Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar titled “Who Is a Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?” on February 6, 1970. In this piece Salazar discussed the nuances of the label as expressing a social consciousness of resistance. Conversely, the label “Mexican American” held an inverse connotation less critical of the subordination of ethnic Mexicans. In the words of Salazar, “Chicanos, then, are merely fighting to become ‘Americans.’ Yes, but with a Chicano outlook.”72

Takeaway

An enthusiasm for actualizing positive change and achieving greater representation in society’s institutions with élan inspired the young and old. Since Chicana-Chicano youth existed at all levels of education, campuses served as the grounds for dreaming (to borrow the concept from historian Lori Flores’s work) an enriched condition for ethnic Mexican students in terms of the curricular inclusion of their experiences, support services, and greater representation in faculty and staff. These students, with the guidance of mentors from the Mexican American generation, learned, gained confidence, and worked collaboratively with others to achieve positive changes. Chicana-Chicano students of Ventura County, therefore, fought similar struggles as their counterparts in different parts of the nation, but with a rurban chic all their own.


Frank P. Barajas is a professor of history at California State University Channel Islands. He is the author of Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898–1961 (Nebraska, 2012).

Notes:

Excerpt taken from Mexican Americans with Moxie: A Transgenerational History of El Movimiento Chicano in Ventura County, California, 1945–1975 (University of Nebraska Press, 2021)

  1. Yvonne De Los Santos and Roberto Flores, interview by Frank P. Barajas, February 1, 2013.
  2. Roberto Flores, interview by Frank P. Barajas, April 14, 2006; Helen Galindo Casillas, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 9, 2006; Armando López, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 21, 2010; Rachel Murguia Wong, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 30, 2010.
  3. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Roberto Flores, interview by Frank
    P. Barajas, April 14, 2006; Galindo Casillas interview, 2006; Frank H. Barajas, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 16, 2020.
  4. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013.
  5. Juan Lagunas Soria, interview by Frank Bardacke, January 25, 1996; Flores inter- view, 2006.
  6. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Laura Espinosa, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 30, 2012; Galindo Casillas interview, 2006; Moses Mora, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 1, 2016; Ray and Teresa Tejada, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 26, 2012.
  7. Eva Barbara Brown, “New High School Clubs Rising to Meet Challenge of Ethnic Awakening,” Ventura County Star-Free Press, February 1, 1970.
  8. Brown, “New High School Clubs Rising.”
  9. Roberto Hernández, Coloniality of the U.S./Mexico Border, 24–27.
  10. “Protesting ci Students Face Suspensions, Principal Says,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 27, 1969.
  11. “Chicano Educators’ Aid to Be Requested,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 19, 1970; “naacp Charges Elks Discriminate,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 23, 1971.
  12. “Farm Workers Return to Jobs After ‘Holiday,’” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 17, 1971; “Fighting Disrupts Oxnard School,” Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1971; “Oxnard Grid Game Canceled; Beatings Cut School Attendance,” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 24, 1971; John Willson, “Oxnard High Violence Forces Closure,” Ventura County Star-Free Press, September 24, 1971; “Oxnard Football Opener Canceled,” Oxnard Press-Courier, September 25, 1971; “Monday Reopen- ing: Oxnard High Seeking Calm,” Ventura County Star-Free Press, September 26, 1971; Peter Martínez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 23, 2020.
  13. “Minority Committee to Meet,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 3, 1971; “Smith’s Resignation Offer Favored by Oxnard Board,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1971.
  14. Art Kuhn, “Black Offered Job: Smith’s Resignation Offer Favored by Oxnard Board,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1971.
  15. Rick Nielsen, “Oxnard High School Firebombed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 31, 1971; “U.S. Enters Oxnard High Probe,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 1, 1971.
  16. “Editorials: Firebombing Act of Desperation?,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 2, 1971.
  17. “ohs to Get New Principal Shortly,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 9, 1971.
  18. Cindy Garcia, “Channel Islands mecha Conducts Clothes Drive for Tijuana Needy,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 2, 1973.
  19. Karly Eichner, “Candy Sale Contest Starts at Rio Mesa,” December 2, 1973; “mecha
    Sponsored Event Draws 100 Parents,” Oxnard Press-Courier, November 12, 1972.
  20. Diana Borrego Martínez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, July 9, 2012; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013.
  21. Jess Gutiérrez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 28, 2010.
  22. Borrego Martínez interview, 2012; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Acuña, Making of Chicana/o Studies, 95, 96.
  23. Jess Gutiérrez lecture, csuci, April 2014; Manuela Aparicio-Twitchell, interview by Frank P. Barajas, July 22, 2014; “mc Opens to 1200 Day Students,” Moorpark College Reporter 1, no. 1, September 29, 1967; “Campus News: Oxnard Repeats Bus Service to College,” Pirate Press, September 19, 1969; “Commuter Bus Routes Approved,” Oxnard Press-Courier, July 14, 1971.
  24. “Berets Present Sheinbaum Today,” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 3, October 4, 1968.
  25. “Moorpark Students Engage in Peaceful Protest at Poverty Conf.,” Raiders Reporter
    2, no. 5, October 23, 1968.
  26. “Of Campus Organizations: Berets Build ‘Community Pride,’” Raiders Reporter
    2, no. 5, October 23, 1968.
  27. “Berets Build ‘Community Pride.’”
  28. Bill Bader, “Of Personalities: ‘I’m Here to Educate You’–Soria,” Raiders Reporter
    2, no. 8, November 13, 1968.
  29. Bader, “I’m Here to Educate You”; López interview, 2010.
  30. “Unity Group Planned for Oxnard,” Oxnard Press-Courier, December 29, 1968; Flores interview, 2006; “Voice of the People: Berets Give Service,” Oxnard Press- Courier, February 3, 1969.
  31. Fbi File, February 5, 1969, courtesy of Milo Alvarez.
  32. Reynaldo Rivera, “Chicanos Suffer in This Country,” Pirate Press, December 12, 1969; “mecha Group Nominates Officers, Representatives,” by Michel Wolf, Pirate Press, May 22, 1970.
  33. Robert Flores, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 10, 2010; De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Borrego Martínez interview, 2012; Gutiérrez interview, 2010; Ismael “Mayo” de la Rocha, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 15 and 22, 2014; Fermín Herrera, interview by Frank P. Barajas, August 14, 2019; “Editorials: Study Project Deserves a Chance,” Oxnard Press-Courier, July 5, 1969; Acuña, Making of Chicana/o Studies, 52–54.
  34. “Mexican-America ucsb Course Topic,” Oxnard Press-Courier, August 18, 1969.
  35. Over thirty-five students belonged to Moorpark College mecha; see Steve Horton, “mecha Proposes mc Chicano Study Program: Confrontation with Administration Has Harmonious Start,” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 25, April 23, 1969.
  36. “Mexican Flag Flies at mc in Independence Day Fete,” Raiders Reporter 3 no. 1, September 17, 1969; Muñoz, Youth, Identity, Power, 189–90.
  37. Professor Reynoso was the brother of Cruz Reynoso, who would be appointed to the California Supreme Court in 1981 by governor Jerry Brown; see “New, Yet Familiar: mas Head Reynoso Finds mc ‘Exciting,’” Raiders Reporter 3, no. 4, October 8, 1969.
  38. “Mas Conference Planned at mc,” Raider Reporter 3, no. 9, November 12, 1969.
  39. “Mas Conference Planned at mc”; “Chicano Studies Conference Slated at Moor- park College,” Oxnard Pres-Courier, November 17, 1969.
  40. Bill Sanchez et al., “To the Editor: Open Letter,” La Voz del Pueblo, November 21, 1969.
  41. “Julian Nava,” Raiders Reporter 3, no. 24, April 15, 1970, 4. After his tenure at Moorpark College, Collins went on to continue his support of Chicano studies as president of Bakersfield college; see Rosales, “Mississippi West,” 172–73.
  42. Raoul Contreras, “Raoul Reacts: Black Power,” Pirate Press, November 15, 1968; Borrego Martínez interview, 2012; Mayo de la Rocha, interview by Frank P. Barajas, May 15 and 22, 2014; “Meet Features sb Walk-Out,” Pirate Press, October 1, 1968; Raoul Contreras, “Black Students, Officials Confront Problem Areas,” Pirate Press, December 6, 1968.
  43. Duane Warren, “Larry Ellis, Black Activities Head, Expounds upon bsu’s Eight Demands,” Pirate Press, January 9, 1970.
  44. “Mc Library Fuss Penalties Pressed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, October 6, 1971; “Moorpark bsu Slates Black Events,” Oxnard Press-Courier, March 3, 1971.
  45. Emilia Alaniz, “Two Counselors Hired to Aid Disadvantaged,” Pirate Press, Decem- ber 4, 1970; “Minority Centers Form New Programs, Goals,” Pirate Press, February 26, 1971.
  46. Blackwell, ¡Chicana Power!, 135; Montejano, Quixote’s Soldiers, 126–27.
  47. Jill Patrick, “4-Day Cinco de Mayo Event Begins Tues,” Raiders Reporter 4, no. 28, April 28, 1971.
  48. “mc Commemorates Cinco De Mayo,” Raider Reporter 5, no. 29, May 3, 1972.
  49. De Los Santos and Flores interview, 2013; Gutiérrez interview, 2010.
  50. Dick Cooper, “People’s Choice,” Oxnard Press-Courier, April 15, 1973.
  51. Michael Kremer, “mecha Outlines Seven Proposals: Dr. Glenn Announces Steps to Implement Minority Plans,” Pirate Press, May 15, 1970; “Minority Students’ Informational Center Opens for Business on vc Campus,” Pirate Press, October 2, 1970; “Campus News: mecha, bsu Organize Tutoring for Disadvantaged,” Pirate Press, October 23, 1970.
  52. “Bsu, mecha Present Show,” Pirate Press, December 8, 1972; Dennis McCarthy, “Minority Center Plans Festivities,” Pirate Press, May 7, 1971.
  53. Louis Zitnik, “Letters to the Editor: Minorities,” Pirate Press, March 30, 1973.
  54. Arnulfo Casillas, “Writer Differs with Letter to Editor,” Pirate Press, April 13, 1973.
  55. “Mecha Mounts Mural,” Pirate Press, May 4, 1973; “Chicano Celebration Con- tinues,” Pirate Press, May 4, 1973.
  56. “Chicano Speaks: The Mexican Fiesta—a Chance to ‘Discharge the Soul,’” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 21, March 19, 1969.
  57. Raoul Contreras, “Mexican Students Propose Festive Christmas Season,” Pirate Press, November 8, 1968; “Mexicans Prepare Holiday Festivities,” Pirate Press, December 6, 1968.
  58. Silvia Monica Robledo, “Letters to the Editor: Chicana Reader Explains, Defends Movimiento, Challenges Campos to Meaningful Participation,” Pirate Press, May 24, 1974.
  59. Arnulfo Casillas, “Cinco de Mayo Explained,” Pirate Press, April 27, 1973. For the study of the usages of history to situate the power of collectives in the Chicana- Chicano community, see Bebout, Mythohistorical Imaginations.
  60. Aparicio-Twitchell interview, 2014; “Jeanette Valasco mecha and Luedora Wallace bsu for Homecoming Queen,” Raiders Reporter 4, no. 9, November 12, 1970; “Aure- lia Aparicio mc Homecoming Queen,” Raider Reporter, November 22, 1972; “Betty Luna Reigns as Homecoming Queen,” Pirate Press, November 7, 1969; “Pirates’ Roy- alty for Homecoming Crowned Today,” Pirate Press, November 20, 1970.
  61. “Hernández Endorses Luevano for Top Post,” Raiders Reporter 2, no. 27, May 7, 1969; Becky Merrell, “New Winds of Activism: mas Program Expanding Understanding,” Raider Reporter 3, no. 14, December 17, 1969; “Rueles Elected as New Speaker of Parliament,” Raider Reporter 5, no. 21, March 1, 1972.
  62. Jenaro Valdez, interview by Frank P. Barajas, June 19, 2019. Tom Richter, “Seven Vie for Four Positions on A.S. Board Tuesday,” Pirate Press, January 10, 1975; Tom Rich- ter, “3 Percent Vote: mecha Sweeps A.S. Elections,” Pirate Press, January 17, 1975.
  63. “Mechistas Hear Platform, Purposes,” Pirate Press, March 7, 1975; Manuel Razo, “Let- ters to the Editor: So What Is mecha All About?,” Pirate Press, October 4, 1974.
  64. Jill Boardmand, “Alpha Gamma Challenges mecha: as Election Set for Next Week,” Pirate Press, May 23, 1975; Jill Boardman and Tom Richter, “Fall as Board Candidates Fight for Leadership Positions,” Pirate Press, May 30, 1975.
  65. Michael C. Dill, “Letters to the Editor: Grouch Runs for Treasurer,” Pirate Press, May 30, 1975.
  66. Leigh Ann Dewey, “as Board: Election Controversy Erupts,” Pirate Press, June 6, 1976; Tom Richter, “ags Wins as Election; Voting Number Doubles,” Pirate Press, June 6, 1975.
  67. R. De Leon, “Voice of the People: Objects to ‘Chicano,’” Oxnard Press-Courier, January 21, 1970; Jerry R. Rosalez, “Voice of the People: ‘Chicano’ Opposed,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 2, 1970.
  68. Faye Villa, “Voice of the People: ‘Chicanos’ Challenge,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 2, 1970.
  69. Dan E. Contreras, “Voice of the People: Chicano Spokesman,” Oxnard Press- Courier, February 3, 1970.
  70. Nomas Milando, “Voice of the People: More on ‘Chicano,’” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 7, 1970.
  71. Daniel Eugenio Contreras, “Voice of the People: Chicano Power Defined,” Oxnard Press-Courier, February 23, 1970.
  72. Ruben Salazar, “Who Is a Chicano? What Is It the Chicanos Want?,” Los Angeles Times, February 6, 1970.

© 2021 by Frank P. Barajas.; used with permission by University of Nebraska Press. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

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Before Amazon: Land, Labor, and Logistics in the Inland Empire of WWII

Brinda Sarathy

On August 25, 2015, the Moreno Valley City Council in Riverside County, California green lit the World Logistics Center (WLC) in a contentious 3-2 vote. Slated to be the largest inland port in the USA, the WLC envisions more than 40 million square feet of warehouses built atop 2,610 acres of now open fields on the city’s far-east side, south of the 60 Freeway. Once completed, the massive complex will span the equivalent of 700 football fields and is estimated to generate 68,712 vehicle trips daily, of which 14,006 will be made by majority diesel trucks.[1] For those less familiar with this area of the Golden State— often referred to as the “Inland Empire”—picture once largely citrus-growing and Kaiser steel-producing Counties of Riverside and San Bernardino as now ground zero for the nation’s goods-movement industry. Over the past two decades, Inland Valley politicians and developers have pushed an aggressive growth agenda which has seen the construction of over 159 million square feet of industrial warehouse space in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties between 2000 and 2008,[2] and a dramatic increase in truck and rail transportation of goods from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the rest of the country.[3] As warehouses carpet vast alluvial valley floors and high deserts alike, the Santa Ana, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto Mountains trap the fumes of economic “progress” generated by diesel transport. This is the 21st century terrain wrought by e-commerce giants such as Amazon, FedEx, and UPS, who have set up shop in the Inland Empire, to make good on everyday consumers’ desires for one-click and same day delivery services.

Aerial of World Logistics Center site, Moreno Valley, California

According to Iddo Benzeevi, the developer in charge of the mammoth WLC undertaking and, not incidentally, a key donor behind the successful races of several Moreno Valley City Council members, the project will be a boon to the region and result in 20,000 permanent jobs, 13,00 construction jobs, and $2.5 billion a year in economic activity.[4] Such promotion of the WLC as a solution for regional employment is not new. As the region’s demographic and political makeup have shifted over the past two decades—from an older white and Republican population to predominantly working-class Latinx immigrants—local economic boosters have promoted warehouse construction and employment in the logistics industry as the main path for their modestly educated populations to achieve the middle-class.[5]

Racial Composition of Workforce in Inland Empire, UCR CSI, p. 3

Between 2013 and 2016, Amazon alone invested $4.6 billion in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, and built a total of 15 fulfillment and distribution centers in the predominantly Latinx communities of San Bernardino, Riverside, Rialto, Moreno Valley, and Eastvale. Moreover, of the over 15.1million square feet of warehouse space currently occupied by Amazon in four counties of the Southland, fifty percent is located in San Bernardino County, with another forty-four percent in Riverside County.[6] When asked why the IE was such a “great place to have so many Amazon fulfillment networks,” a company spokesperson noted that “It’s a perfect mix of valuable things — an exceptional workforce, thoughtful partners, great locations and strong customer support.”[7]

Square feet of Warehouse Space by City and County, Flaming and Burns, 2019. p. 25.

Scholar Juan De Lara, by contrast, has compellingly argued in his recent book Inland Shift, that the region as a hub for logistics is, instead, about the “territorialization of race” and frictions between labor and capital from the 1970s onward.[8] As a fundamentally spatial process, territorialization in the Inland Empire has involved the “fixing” of racialized groups in particular places and within certain occupations. De Lara expertly chronicles how labor was made flexible through differences in race, gender, and immigration status; the dismantling of defunct industrial plants; specific practices that facilitate just-in-time production; and the ongoing discursive formations that make such transformations possible in a post-Keynesian world. His analysis, moreover, undergirds long-standing contentions on the part of environmental justice activists that the WLC and similar warehouse complexes present not a boon, but rather an economic, ecological and public health boondoggle. Organizers and researchers have long raised serious concerns about the impacts of worsening air quality on public health and disproportionate burden on low-income communities of color who live along diesel thoroughfares and warehouse fence lines elsewhere in the Inland region.[9] In 2001, for example, the South Coast Air Quality Management District found that Mira Loma Village, a low-income Latinx community of 101 homes in what was then an unincorporated part of Riverside County, had the highest levels of particulate pollution in the nation.[10] Now part of the City of Jurupa Valley, the Mira Loma community essentially constitutes a residential island afloat among an ocean of warehouses and with more than 800 trucks passing by the Mira Loma Village each hour.  Similarly, in 2008, the California Air Resources Board ranked the San Bernardino Rail facility among the top five most polluting rail yards in California and “first in terms of community health risk due to the large population living in the immediate vicinity.”[11] Coupled with already existing air pollution blowing eastwards from Central Los Angeles, and the natural inversion effect created by the San Bernardino, San Jacinto, and Santa Ana mountain ranges, it is no wonder that Riverside and San Bernardino Counties have among the worst air quality and highest rates of asthma in the nation.[12]

Aerial of Mira Loma Village surrounded by warehouses, Jurupa Valley, California. Google Maps.

Finally, activists and scholars have questioned developer assertions about warehouses being a panacea for employment. Indeed, the WLC made a similar claim during its first phase of construction which saw the creation of a 1.8 million square foot Sketchers distribution center in Moreno Valley. Yet, that project resulted in a net zero job gain for the community and actually led to the loss of some 200 jobs when the facility moved from its original location in Ontario, California.[13] More recently, precarious labor conditions and the rise of automation within warehouse work itself have dampened claims that these facilities are a meaningful solution to address underemployment in the region.[14] In this context, the World Logistics Center is only the most recent and perhaps most egregious example of unfettered support for warehouse growth in the face of potential harm to people and the environment. 

Whether and when the WLC will come to fruition remains an open question. A coalition of land conservation and environmental justice groups have been working to challenge the project in court and, in August 2019, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the development was not exempt from state environmental regulations.[15] California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the California Air Resources Board also filed an amicus brief with the Fourth Circuit, challenging the WLC for disregarding the California Environmental Quality Act and failing to accurately capture the greenhouse gas emissions from the development. Most recently, in April 2021, litigating parties and the developer reached a $47 million settlement to help fund the electrification of trucks, on-site vehicles, and charging infrastructure. Iddo Benzeevi has spun the legal settlement as a “significant achievement of making the World Logistics Center the first net-zero (greenhouse gas) project in the nation and setting a new precedent for sustainable development.”[16] Yet, the legal challenges keep coming as other conservation organizations and environmental justice advocates fight the rising tide of warehouse development in Moreno Valley and elsewhere in the region.[17]

What all parties seem to agree upon, however, is a shared narrative of warehouse development and logistics in the Inland Empire as a relatively recent phenomenon, one dating back to the early 2000s. While the rapid rise of warehousing as a regional economic development phenomenon is certainly a post-2000 story, I argue that warehousing and logistics in themselves are not new to the inland region. Over the remainder of this essay, I extend Juan De Lara’s conceptualization of the “territorialization of race” even farther back in time to trace the production of the Inland Empire’s logistics industry to the development of military installations, differentially incarcerated Italian prisoners of war and Japanese American internees, and racialized warehouse work during World War II. In so doing, my aim is to understand the production of the inland region through various flows, both material and metaphoric, and how particular racialized groups have been partly sedimented in particular places and occupations.

Warehousing People and Provisions: Japanese American Internment

In the early 1940s, six decades before the 101 homes of Mira Loma Village in western Riverside County became infamous among public health practitioners and environmental justice activists for their veritable terrestrial containment by warehouses and exposure to high levels of fine particulate matter, this area comprised a bucolic landscape of open ranch lands growing grapes, barley, and pasture for horses and dairy herds. Twenty odd miles away, it was the City of San Bernardino which gave rise to the first mass storage facilities in the region when, on January, 16, 1942, the U.S. Quartermaster General (a branch of the U.S. Army) established the San Bernardino Depot. The establishment of this facility would soon impact land use in Mira Loma as well and can be viewed as constitutive of a larger logistics landscape shaped by warfare.

Also known as “Camp Ono,” the San Bernardino Depot was part and parcel of World War II mobilization efforts on the West Coast and addressed the need for space to house various military units including the Signal Corps, Corps of Engineers, Medical Corps, and the Chemical Warfare Corps. In 1942, the Depot operated 11 warehouses comprising approximately 100,00 square feet of floor space dispersed over an area of “approximately six miles in diameter” between Colton and San Bernardino.[18]  In addition to carrying out the supply functions for troops in the Southern California Sector— which included Armored Forces Troops that had assembled at the Desert Training Center near Indio, California— Camp Ono soon became central to the provisioning of Japanese American concentration camps between April and October 1942, and charged with supplying 60,000 “Japanese aliens” at its peak.[19] The storage and movement of goods for U.S. troops stationed in inland Southern California during World War II, and the transport and provisioning of Japanese American internees thus became the first seeds to germinate warehouse development in the region.

Camp Ono, San Bernardino, California. Los Angeles Times, Sunday, December 13, 1981. Photos provided by Perry Pugno.
Camp Ono, San Bernardino, California. Los Angeles Times, Sunday, December 13, 1981. Photos provided by Perry Pugno.

In May 1943, James Bennett, the Quartermaster Depot historian captured well the connection between warehouses, supply provisioning, and the internment of Japanese Americans at Camp Manzanar to the east.[20]  Bennett’s records reveal that the U.S. Government approached Japanese American internment as a logistical problem to be solved by military and civilian personnel alike.  While depot officials viewed the feeding and watering of Japanese ‘aliens’ as a “first class headache,”[21] Camp Ono soon became known for the efficiency and frugality of its operations under Commanding Officer, Colonel Chas E. Stafford. The accolades garnered by Camp Ono were primarily framed in terms of the good cheer and cooperation with which American civilians and military personnel endured the hardships posed by the evacuation effort, with nary a perspective into what it might have meant for the U.S. citizens of Japanese descent who were dispossessed and displaced as a result of internment.  In one letter, E.H. Fryer, Regional Director of the War Relocation Authority, lauded Stafford for his “cheerful cooperation, suggestions, and wholehearted interest.”[22] Another officer similarly praised U.S. civilians for their adaptation “to this new phase of work and laboring wholeheartedly to accomplish the end without regard to many hours of hard effort after the normal working day had expired.” [23] At the national level, too, the U.S. Army was hailed for its superb coordination of an involuntary internal mass migration.  None other than Carey McWilliams, then Chief of the Division of Immigration and Housing for the State of California noted: “the evacuation of 100,000 Japanese, men, women and children… has been accomplished on time, without mishap and with virtually no trouble… In effecting this vast movement of people in a brief time, the conduct of the Army has been wholly admirable.”[24]

Los Angeles, California. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry entraining for Manzanar, California, 250 miles away, where they are now housed in a War Relocation Authority center. NARA – 536765.jpg Clem Albers, Photographer (NARA record: 8452194) – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Santa Anita reception center, Los Angeles, California. The evacuation of Japanese and Japanese-Americans from West Coast areas under U.S. Army war emergency 
order. Registering Japanese-Americans as they arrive, 1942. Photographer: Russell Lee
http://historyinphotos.blogspot.com/2013/08/russell-lee-japanese-internment.html

How to move goods efficiently and on time? While behemoths like Amazon have perfected just-in-time delivery in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, military personnel in the 1940s faced supply chain challenges as they figured out ways to get fresh fruits and vegetables to Japanese American internees. The main supply center was in Los Angeles, which lay 220 miles to the southwest of Camp Manzanar.  Because fast freight was used to supply Army troops, the slow freight that transported goods to internees resulted in considerable spoilage. It was in this context that refrigerated trucks first began to transport perishable foodstuffs to internees, representing one of the earliest iterations of “goods movement” in the inland region.   The use of commercial truck lines reduced transit time and also led to considerable declines in spoilage.[25] 

Certainly, the irony of their situation was not lost on depot officials who noted that “the Japanese [sic] were ordered to abandon their thousands of truck farms—their produce left to wilt, unpicked— yet at the same time…they themselves were herded into camps where food must somehow be found for them.”[26] And Colonel Stafford and his staff were just as quick to hone the Depot’s operations by taking advantage of the plight of Japanese Americans in Los Angeles.  The expedited process of evacuation and internment forced Japanese American wholesalers and retailers to dump large stocks of “noodles, soy sauce, miso sauce, canned fish, dried shrimp and various marine products” to American middlemen at “probably half price.” Stafford aptly noted that the U.S. Army “would undoubtedly have to pay those jobbers the full price” in order to provision internees. To avoid the inflated prices imposed by opportunistic middlemen, Stafford suggested that the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles coordinate the purchase of goods from Japanese American suppliers at a fixed price, “before that food gets into the hands of jobbers.”  These goods were subsequently stored at the Depot and “saved the Government thousands of dollars.”[27]

By late March, the first barracks for Japanese-American internees had been erected at Camp Manzanar and a steady stream of internees from that point on—numbering in the thousands per day— dramatically increased the need for warehouse storage in the region.  Upon visiting the San Bernardino Quartermaster Depot, Colonel W.E. Waldron of the Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, ordered the erection of 50 theater-of-operations pre-fabricated buildings, each capable of being up in about 48-man hours, to alleviate the shortage of storage facilities.  The storage needs of the San Bernardino Depot during this period provide another window into both the sheer scale of evacuation and the basic needs of internees: 10,000 pounds of noodles, 80,000 pounds of rice, and 2000 pounds of tea…hair and bobby pins, baby clothes and diapers, infant bottles and nipples.  According to Bennett, “perhaps the strangest requisition of all was for 1000 of what Americans alternately call chamber pots or thunder mugs. The full quota of this item was procured, after a considerable search, from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward mail order houses who in turn were forced to hunt at some length in the stacks of obsolete stock.”[28]

The cost cutting measures of the U.S. Army were primarily borne and subsidized by the internees themselves. Even the machinery for making miso sauce and pickled radish at the camps had been bought/taken from imprisoned Nissei (American-born Japanese), who then made miso sauce for the camps. Depot officials also scrutinized substitutions to food supply requests made by internment camp cooks and managers.  Indeed, the latter were viewed as being too extravagant in their orders. One officer, for example, complained: “In addition to the prime meat and 92 score butter, the camp managers were requisitioning quantities of canned pears and canned sliced peaches, and an ‘excess of jam: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry.’ And they were demanding it in small, uneconomical-sized tins. They were asking for whale meat and fancy tinned shrimp. Also, they demanded six to seven tons of pancake flour…Of course, we will see that they (i.e. the evacuees) be given good food, but they shouldn’t be given these extra items regularly—that is, better food than that which our soldiers receive.”[29] Similar tensions arose over public perception over “the siphoning off” of fresh milk to internment camps.  Not surprisingly, Colonel Stafford responded by defending “the Great American Pocketbook against what appeared to him unwarranted extravagance.”[30] Ultimately, this problem was solved by substituting half of the ration of fresh milk for canned or powdered milk.[31]  

Growing Supply Needs: The Birth of Mira Loma Depot

As demands to provision interned Japanese Americans and desert training troops increased, the U.S. Army formally activated the Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot on August 15, 1942. Located approximately 44 miles from the nearest metropolitan center Los Angeles, Mira Loma was considered ideal for the purposes of a military depot.  From a transportation-oriented point of view, it was close to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks, with necessary spurs and sidings, and near two railway division points: San Bernardino for the Santa Fe Railroad, and Colton for the Southern Pacific Lines. Key roadways also bordered the depot, including Mission Boulevard/ U.S. 60— the main truck highway between San Diego, Riverside and Los Angeles— to the south and, paralleling it, three miles to the north, U.S. 99—the Ocean-to-Ocean Highway known locally at the time as the Valley Boulevard. Charged with supplying a Desert Training Force of 67,000 troops with A rations on a daily basis, the Mira Loma Depot was considered “ground zero” for warehouse operations in the Inland region.  It vastly outsized the buildings at Camp Ono—all of which could be placed in one of several warehouses that were constructed at the new site.  In total, Mira Loma Depot constituted 2,162,706 square feet of warehouse and office space[32] and in January 1944 employed 2,646 civilian personnel.[33]

Mira Loma Quarter Master Depot hand drawn map of warehouses and buildings.  Record Group: 92 Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General Agency or Division: Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot Mira Loma, CA Series: Historical Diaries, Journals and Reports 1942-1954. Folder Title: The Storage Division M.L.Q.M.D.  A Historical Study [2/2] Box 9, National Archives at Riverside.

U.S. officials consistently praised the labor of white military and civilian personnel in supplying goods to Camp Manzanar, yet overlooked the ten percent of Mira Loma’s labor force made up of African American and Mexican workers.  Historian James Bennett’s racially fraught views about the depot workforce likely also reflected those of his superiors. Bennett, for example, mused about the forbearance of white managers and workers and viewed their contributions to Mira Loma as both singular and preferable to that of Black and brown labor:

“The officers and the labor foremen, from the very beginning of the Depot, have tried to treat their darker skinned laborers with scrupulous fairness. In fact, there have been an appreciable number of cases of slight unfairness to their white [emphasis in original] laborers, in disputes between white and colored, stemming from this determined bending over backwards attitude.

The white laborers, in fact, have made no objection to working with the colored races, and the work has been performed without resultant friction. In this willingness of the whites, the Mira Loma Depot is, possibly, unique.

The problem posed by the Mexicans is not so much that of racial pride—although that occasionally enters. It is inherent in their whole philosophy of life. They work—hard—make a little money. Then they slack, are absent without cause or actually resign. Their wants are few, and they deplore the American itch to get ahead and keep on working after one’s pocket is full of dollars. And this dolce far niente [emphasis in original] attitude is also held to a somewhat lesser degree by the Negroes. Consequently, from Mira Loma’s point of view, the darker races are none too dependable.”[34]

Overall, white civilians and military personnel in Southern California supply depots territorialized race and racialized labor through a variety of logistical operations that both expanded the social and spatial mobility of whites and restricted the movement of non-white groups. In the Inland Empire of the 1940s, logistics in particular aimed to efficiently manage the movement of incarcerated Japanese Americans, who were dispossessed of their property and herded into a high desert concentration camp at Manzanar.

“Those Were the Three Best Years of My Life:” Italian POWs and White Freedom

In contrast to the ordeal of Japanese Americans in California, Italian Prisoners of War brought to the United States faced distinctly different treatment at the hands of the Army. With Italy’s formal surrender to the Allies in September 1943, General Eisenhower, then Commander in Chief of Allied Forces in the Mediterranean, and Italy’s new, provisional leader Marshall Pietro Badoglio reached an agreement of cooperation. In December 1943, Badoglio issued a statement requesting all Italian prisoners of war held in the United States to assist the Allies in every possible way, excepting in actual combat.

A few weeks later, in January 1944, the War Department’s chief of the Army Special Forces put Badoglio’s call into action by creating Italian Service Units, or ISUs. Over the next several months, Italian POWs brought to and detained in the United States voluntarily enlisted in ISUs, which were structured almost the same as equivalent American units and whose members were paid about twenty-four dollars per month, the same as American GIs. In sharp contrast to the plight of Japanese Americans, ISUs had considerable social and spatial freedoms and the acceptance of local communities in which they labored.[35] Between 1944-46, 499 former Italian POWs turned ISUs were detained in inland Southern California. These soldiers were initially brought to Norfolk, Virginia, and then shipped by train to spend a summer picking cotton in the blazing fields of Florence, Arizona. As elsewhere in the United States, the war had resulted in agricultural labor shortages that were filled by foreign worker primarily through the Bracero Program.[36]

In January of 1944, as part of a deal brokered between the Southern California Farmers’ Association and the U.S. Army, 499 Italian soldiers signed up to go to the Italian American community of Guasti, near what is now Rancho Cucamonga in San Bernardino County. The Farmers Association agreed to house, feed, and compensate the soldiers in exchange for their pruning vineyards and working the fields of the Inland Empire. The Army agreed to provide a few military guards to ensure minimal safety. Again, the treatment of Italian POWs compared with the internment of Japanese Americans highlights the territorialization of race and labor in the Inland region. Of the arrival of Italian prisoners in Guasti, one media account notes:

“Handshakes and kisses were exchanged and inquiries made about relatives back in Italy… By the time the last of the prisoners was off the train and onto the waiting buses the entire group had begun singing Italian folk songs…Out in the fields the prisoners worked side by side with the farmers, many of them Italian, and their families. At noon meals were served by the women. Often there was a bottle of wine passed around.

There was never a shortage of food. Many of the grateful farmers, feeling 80 cents a day was not enough, donated chickens, eggs, vegetables, cheese and the like.”[37]

Italian Service Units sent to Camp Ono received similarly favorable treatment as recounted by a former unit member:

“The POW’s [sic] had many liberties regarding entertainment. In fact, on many weekends they were driven into San Bernardino to see a movie or to have dinner with their girlfriends’ families!

…on Sundays the prisoners were allowed to take walks into the surrounding vineyards, as this was a fond reminder of their homeland. They would casually walk out for hours at a time with no military escorts. Their only identification was a green arm band that each wore with “ITALY” spelled out in white letters.”[38]

Certainly, all 850 Italian Service Units put to work at the Mira Loma Quarter Master Repair Sub Depot on the outskirts of San Bernardino and the Main Quarter Master Depot in Mira Loma were considered a boon by Army officials faced with a “man-power shortage of major proportions.” The Italian units primarily repaired tents, machinery and appliances and were remarked upon by the Depot historian—in contrast to his less savory appraisal of Mexican and Black workers—for their productivity and focus:

“…For the month of January 1945, the Italians contributed 27,000 man-days. Their lost time record is remarkable- less than 1%- and this includes absence due to illness as well as confinement for disciplinary purposes.” [39]

Moreover, and in contrast to Japanese American internees’ experiences, Italian Service Units were generally afforded dignified and humanitarian treatment. They were taught by San Bernardino Junior College teachers of “university-caliber,” offered classes in English, job training, and military functions and operations, and given time for leisure and the upkeep of their spirits. Per depot historian, James Bennett:

In order to keep the moral of the Italians at the present high standard, they have been encouraged to utilize their dramatic talents in a series of plays which members of the Battalion write, direct and perform during off duty hours…

…the Italians are permitted a limited amount of off-duty athletics. Among their activities in this category they have developed an excellent soccer team. Games are scheduled for each Sunday with soccer teams in this area. To date, the Italians have won the major number of their contests.[40]

The Final Years: Weapons and Waste

After WWII, the Mira Loma Quarter Master Depot had a larger classification operation receiving shipments of material from overseas and the deactivation of military installations in the southwest. In addition, in 1947 and 1948, Mira Loma became a Distribution Center of American Graves Registration, participating in the return of remains program. By 1955, as Army operations declined, the Mira Loma Depot was transferred to the Department of the Air Force and became a storing and dismantling ground for 83 retired Titan 1 and Atlas missiles. About 33 of these relics were distributed to museums, parks and schools as static displays while the remaining 50 were scrapped on site in Mira Loma in 1966.[41] Unsurprisingly, such activities would lead to perchlorate contamination of the site. In 1966, approximately 2/3 of the land was sold to a private entity, the Mira Loma Space Center, which re-developed the site as an industrial and commercial office park, embodying the warehouse landscapes so characteristic of the Inland Empire of today.

Titan-I ICBM SM vehicles being destroyed at Mira Loma AFS for the SALT-1 Treaty Date: 2011-11-08. Credit: Leebrandoncremer License: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/HGM-25A_Titan_I
Titan-I ICBM SM vehicles being destroyed at Mira Loma AFS for the SALT-1 Treaty Date: 2011-11-08. Credit: Leebrandoncremer License: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/HGM-25A_Titan_I

The U.S. Army’s warehousing and transportation operations in Southern California during World War II laid the groundwork for cost-effective practices and time-saving measures that have new incarnations in the consumer warehouses of today.  Japanese Americans imprisoned at Camp Manzanar served a critical “proving ground” for such logistical operations in one iteration, and U.S. troops stationed in the desert were another. Finally, the contamination of the Depot’s original site, by perchlorate from dismantled weapons of war, echoes contamination of another kind—that of airborne, fine particulate matter emitted by diesel trucks in the Inland Empire’s contemporary logistics industry.

NOTES


[1] IMRAN GHORI, “Judge Sides with Moreno Valley in Challenge against World Logistics Center,” Press Enterprise, accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.pe.com/articles/environmental-810973-city-state.html.

[2] Martha Matsuoka et al., “Global Trade Impacts: Addressing the Health, Social and Environmental Consequences of Moving International Freight through Our Communities” (Occidental College and University of Southern California, March 2011), 30, http://departments.oxy.edu/uepi/publications/GlobalTrade.pdf.

[3] John Froines, “Exposure to Railyard Emissions in Adjacent Communities.”

[4] GHORI, “Judge Sides with Moreno Valley in Challenge against World Logistics Center.”

[5] Sheheryar Kaoosji and Penny Newman, “World Logistics Center Bad for Air, Won’t Bring High-Quality Jobs: Guest Commentary,” accessed March 13, 2017, http://www.dailybulletin.com/article/LH/20170106/LOCAL1/170109693; “State of Work in the Inland Empire,” Center for Social Innovation, accessed January 16, 2020, https://socialinnovation.ucr.edu/state-work-inland-empire.

[6] Daniel Flaming and Patrick Burns, “Too Big to Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store,” Economic Roundtable (Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, November 26, 2019), 25, https://economicrt.org/publication/too-big-to-govern/.

[7] “Amazon Says It Invested $4.7 Billion in the Inland Empire,” Daily Bulletin (blog), April 27, 2018, http://www.dailybulletin.com/amazon-says-it-invested-4-7-billion-in-the-inland-empire.

[8] Juan De Lara, Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California (Univ of California Press, 2018).

[9] Penny Newman, “Inland Ports of Southern California: Warehouses, Distribution Centers, Intermodal Facilities” (Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, June 28, 2012); Jeremy O’Kelley, “South Coast Air Quality Management District Monitoring and Analysis: Mira Loma PM10 Monitoring,” March 2001.

[10] South Coast Air Quality Management District, “Multiple Air Toxics Exposure Study (MATES-II),” March 2000, http://www.aqmd.gov/matesiidf/es.pdf.

[11] Rhonda Spencer-Hwang et al., “Experiences of a Rail Yard Community: Life Is Hard,” Journal of Environmental Health 77, no. 2 (September 2014): 8–17; Hector Castaneda et al., “Health Risk Assessment for the BNSF San Bernardino Railyard,” n.d., 124.

[12] “Key Findings | State of the Air,” American Lung Association, accessed January 16, 2020, https://www.lung.org/our-initiatives/healthy-air/sota/key-findings/.

[13] Laura Hines, “Moreno Valley: Residents Fear Being Surrounded by Warehouse Complex,” The Press Enterprise, May 6, 2012.

[14] Flaming and Burns, “Too Big to Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store”; “State of Work in the Inland Empire.”

[15] Plaintiffs on the lawsuit include the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Coalition for Clean Air, and the San Bernardino Valley Audobon Society.

[16] Beau Yarbrough, “$47 Million Settlement Reached in World Logistics Center Lawsuit,” Press Enterprise, April 29, 2021, https://www.pe.com/2021/04/29/47-million-settlement-reached-in-world-logistics-center-lawsuit/.

[17] “When Your House Is Surrounded by Massive Warehouses,” Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-10-27/fontana-california-warehouses-inland-empire-pollution; “Environmental Group Sues San Bernardino County, Developer over Warehouse Project in Bloomington,” San Bernardino Sun (blog), October 31, 2018, https://www.sbsun.com/environmental-group-sues-san-bernardino-county-developer-over-warehouse-project-in-bloomington; “Developers Sharing Environmental Findings for Warehouse Proposal in Upland,” Daily Bulletin (blog), January 4, 2020, https://www.dailybulletin.com/developers-sharing-environmental-findings-for-warehouse-proposal-in-upland; Steve Scauzillo, “Judge Requires Environmental Review for Proposed Upland Warehouse Rumored for Amazon,” Daily Bulletin, July 28, 2021, https://www.dailybulletin.com/2021/07/27/judge-requires-environmental-review-for-proposed-upland-warehouse-rumored-for-amazon.

[18] James W. Bennett, “Part A; Early Days” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot: Office of the Quartermaster General, July 27, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[19] James W. Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens,” May 25, 1943, Record Group 92, Box 7, National Archives at Riverside.

[20] Bennett’s position represented a conscious decision by the US Army to hire military historians to document their institution’s efforts to address technical and administrative problems in order to serve as a resource for future personnel and situations.  The Army was mindful about recording lessons learned about goods movement during World War II and how these could benefit operations during peacetime as well.  Reflecting on the role of embedded historian’s, the Army noted: “This will provide a significant part of the education and orientation of future officers.  They will know what worked well and what worked badly during this war.  More than that, they will know why. Those officers, in the future must build an enormous supply system from a peace-time basis, will have an appreciable advantage over the men who were called upon to develop the administrative machine during the present conflict.  Obviously, industrial and social conditions will have changed. Officers, however, will know what will work well under a given set of circumstances, and many of these circumstances will be repeated.” Bennett.

[21] Bennett.

[22] Bennett.

[23] Bennett.

[24] Carey McWilliams, “Moving the West-Coast Japanese,” Harper’s Magazine 185 (September 1942): 359–69. While McWilliams admired the logistical execution of the relocation operation in 1942, he also later praised the loyalty of Japanese Americans and opined on the “democratic possibilities” of the relocation program. Carey McWilliams, What about Our Japanese-Americans?, Public Affairs Pamphlets, 91 ([New York]: [Public Affairs Committee, Inc.], 1944).

[25] Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens”; James W. Bennett, “Part B: The Sons of Dai Nippon Present a Problem” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, July 27, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[26] Bennett, “Supplying Forty Thousand Japanese Aliens.”

[27] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Communication between Colonel Stafford and Major B.P. Spry, Ninth Service Command, Fort Douglas, Utah.,” March 19, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[28] Bennett, “Part B: The Sons of Dai Nippon Present a Problem.”

[29] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Conversation between Captain Emery D.K. Jackson at the San Bernardino Depot and Colonel E.A. Evans, G-4 Office, the Presidio of San Francisco.,” April 24, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[30] James W. Bennett, “Transcript of Telephone Conversation,” October 30, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.(82-83) (Oct. 31, 1942 phone conversation)

[31] James W. Bennett, “Summary of Phone Conversation between Colonel Stafford and Colonel Webster.,” October 31, 1942, Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[32] The new Depot comprised several large warehouses, an administration building, a training building, infirmary, garage, officer’s quarters, sewage disposal plant, engine house, oil pump house, motor repair shop, paint shop, post restaurant, oil storage building, water storage building, and various sheds. James W. Bennett, “Part Three: An Engineering Feat” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, August 28, 1943), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder 1, National Archives at Riverside.

[33] By continuing improvement of methods, by June in 1945, the personnel was at 1,691 although the freight tonnage handled at this time was increased 40% over that handled in 1944. “History (of Mira Loma Depot),” n.d., Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: Depot History 1950-51-52, National Archives at Riverside.

[34] James W. Bennett, “Labor at the Mira Loma Depot (an Interim Report), Part A: History and Problems” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, n.d.), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: 314.7 Labor at the Mira Loma Depot (An Interim Report) by the Depot Historian, National Archives at Riverside.

[35] Jack Hamann, On American Soil: How Justice Became a Casualty of World War II, 1st pbk. ed (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007).

[36] Nicholas, R. Cataldo, “City of San Bernardino – POW’s in San Bernardino,” City of San Bernardino, California, accessed March 18, 2018, http://www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/about/history/pows_in_san_bernardino.asp.

[37] T.A. Sunderland, “From Italian POWs to Citizens of the United States,” Los Angeles Times, December 13, 1981, sec. VIEW, http://www.ci.san-bernardino.ca.us/about/history/camp_ono_story___la_times.asp.

[38] Nicholas, R. Cataldo, “City of San Bernardino – POW’s in San Bernardino.”

[39] James W. Bennett, “Report on Italian Service Units” (Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot, 1945), Record Group 92, Box 7, Folder: Historical Items 1945, National Archives at Riverside.

[40] Bennett.

[41] “Mira Loma Quartermaster Depot (Mira Loma Air Force Station, Prisoner of War Camp),” accessed January 20, 2020, http://www.militarymuseum.org/MiraLomaQMD.html.

Dr. Brinda Sarathy joined the University of Washington Bothell as professor and dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences in July 2021. Sarathy’s scholarly expertise includes U.S. environmental policy, California water politics, natural resource management, and environmental justice. Her books include Partnerships for Empowerment: Participatory Research for Community-Based Natural Resource Management (2008), Pineros: Latino Labour and the Changing Face of Forestry in the Pacific Northwest (2012), and Inevitably Toxic: Historic Cases of Contamination, Exposure and Expertise (2018). Her articles have appeared in a number of peer-reviewed venues including the Journal of Forestry, Society and Natural Resources, Policy Sciences, Race Gender & Class, and Local Environment. Sarathy’s current research examines the environmental history of the first Superfund site in California, the Stringfellow Acid Pits.

Articles

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

Catherine S. Ramírez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Gutfreund 180-181.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[25] Ibid.

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

Postcards Series

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

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


Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

George B. Sánchez-Tello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Scott MacDonald 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Scott MacDonald 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Scott MacDonald 

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

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

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

“Big pimpin,” he responded.

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


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

Notes:

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

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

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

Postcard Series

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

Reviews

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

Elizabeth E. Sine

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

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

Courtesy of Pew Research Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poster by Tony Carranza

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Richardson, xii-xiii.

[4] Richardson, 44.

[5] Richardson, 39.

[6] Richardson, 114.

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

Interviews

Forever Prisoners: An Interview with Elliott Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG: It’s a nightmare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG: It’s farcical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpts

A People’s Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area

Rachel Brahinsky and Alexander Tarr

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


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

A Shifting Center

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albany Bulb
1 Buchanan Street, Albany, CA 94706

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

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


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

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

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

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

Berkeley High School
1980 Allston Way, Berkeley 94704

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


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

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

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

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

Black Cultural Zone
2277 International Boulevard, Oakland 94606

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frances Albrier Community Center
2800 Park Street, Berkeley 94702

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcards Series

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

Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

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


Ruxandra Guidi

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postcard Series

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

Reviews

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

Claudia Sandoval

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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