Tag: Social Justice

Postcards Series

South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains

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.


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Nicholas Belardes

I. The Battle of Chester Avenue

We gather south of Chester Avenue’s railroad tracks. Air murmurs with violence. Everyone’s hungry for the blood of what’s taken place, a battle between freight train and car. We gaze at the aftermath. A hellscape. A nightmare. A car mangled in near darkness a few dozen yards from where Dad often takes us for burgers. A&W Root Beer. This is the periphery of how far me and my siblings are allowed to wander from our home on Geneva Avenue.

We heard the crash from our living rooms and front yards and now the community mobs the street. Years later I think this must have been what watching the Civil War was like: a community coming together to observe the collision of gunpowder, steel and flesh. Only, this is our poor man’s take. The barrio version. The working class.

It will be decades before I have any kind of worldview or identity. This is the summer of ‘77. California’s Central Valley. South Bakersfield. A few months before a gargantuan dust storm swallows everything.

Our mixed community as a whole doesn’t seem conscious of itself. Not tonight as we fume and buzz over the train wreck.

I’m small in the crowd. A thing. A feeling. A spore. A lost boy, decades from his struggle to fight political and social forces much greater than this metaphor of rails and blood. Before all the immigration reform marches and rallies. I’m in fourth grade. I don’t realize I’m fighting against this train. It’s smashing into my identity every day, the same way it barrels through Russian thistle and ghosts of. I’m not aware of my hopelessness. I don’t realize I’m the car. I only know I’m here. I want to see the remains of this disaster.

The police won’t allow anyone near the tracks. Not unless you’re a firefighter or detective. From the driver’s seat of our van, Dad, a self-professed ex-Bay Area cop watches the scene with a kind of calm. A vato with a mission. Somehow wanting to teach his kids that our world is violent, mercurial, dangerous. He seems attracted to the pull of violence, like he has to be in the middle of it. And since my brother, sister and I feel safe around him, we’re eager as we slowly park alongside this mass of bodies that fills this usually busy thoroughfare.

The freight train sprawls across Chester Avenue in semi-darkness. The car twisted and smashed against its engine. Detectives hunt with flashlights further down the tracks.

Parents, teenagers, and kids have congregated. What makes this crowd special is all the forgotten hate between neighbors. These people live next door to each other but never talk. They secretly throw rocks at each other’s windows when they’re not home. All the bullies are here too. The ones who pick on me at school—friendly during this snapshot of violence. All making up stories as fast as their mouths can yammer. They want to be heard. Even if only a half peckerwood like me is listening.

Necks crane to see what might happen next, whether ghosts might rise from rocks and dirt. Whether bodies might slip out of the mangled car and stumble herky-jerk down the rails.

“They’re looking for a hand,” says Ruben, a bully with a mouth scar that looks like his lips had once been sewed together.

Other rumors fly like bats. The train smashed into the car on purpose. The car flew across the tracks on a dare. A semi pushed the car into the train. Black, white, Japanese-American, Mexican-American—doesn’t matter who makes up each conspiracy. This could have been a meteor strike or space alien invasion and these people would have banded together to talk shit like it really happened. This is something I’ve never seen in the neighborhood. Something I will never see again except at South High School football games when families from the projects and low-income housing come to root on their racist mascots made in the image of Confederate militants. It’s insane if you think about it: Confederate imagery in the mixed-race neighborhoods of South Bakersfield.

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The Belardes family in the 1970s. Photograph courtesy of author.

II. A White Mythology

Confederate and Civil War imagery surround me. It’s 1982. I’m fourteen, a freshman at South High School. Home of the Rebels. The Blue & Gray. The Merrimac Yearbook. Johnny and Jody yell leaders in military-style grey uniforms and Confederate hats. Our mascot is a cartoon Confederate soldier. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. I don’t understand racism, slavery, war, who fought what or when, and for what cause. I’m so caught up in our school spirit I pin a tiny Confederate flag to a Confederate soldier hat my Mexican-American dad brings home from a swapmeet. He thinks it’s cool. I think this is what high school is all about. Rebel soldiers. Like Star Wars. Like The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t realize a cartoon mascot is a symbol for retaining an economic system that allows for the horrific right to own slaves. I somehow think I’m one of the good guys.

Street names around South High are all Civil War-inspired. Sumter, Merrimac, Monitor, Rebel, Raider, Evelyn. Evelyn might be Evelyn Magruder DeJarnette, a white nineteenth-century writer. She taught slave kids on a Virginia plantation. She culturally appropriated them by writing stories in slave dialect. Her husband was a captain for the Confederate Army, a farmer who owned slaves.

Take a turn down White (Supremacist) Lane onto Monitor Street and you’ll reach Plantation Avenue. An elementary school by the same name still stands there (So do the street names).

III. The Gridiron Race Riot

Sometime between 1984 and 1986 I’m in the stands above our school’s sunken gridiron battlefield for a matchup between North and South high schools. I’m tossing confetti, chanting cheers. I’m really into it when both football teams transform gridiron to full-on mob violence. Karate jump-kicks. Flying fists. Helmets swung like morning stars. A football coach gets smacked with a clipboard. Students and parents run from the stands. Not to break up the fight but to join in. If ever there’s a melee fueled by racism this is it, our twisted fabrication of North versus South. On one side, South High—empowered with its white mythology, though a mixed race school. On the other, North High, embedded in a mostly white community called Oildale, firmly empowered with its own white superiority complex and racist intentions.

While this is a mixed-race school versus a white school, I suspect South High football players of color had images in their heads of being shot if they enter the wrong side of town, of crosses burning in yards, of kids getting lynched outside the dirt-floor shanties of Oildale, California. This is the fear fed to us about the northern suburbs of Bakersfield. If you’re brown, you stay out of that town.

I can only imagine what’s been said on the field, what parents of either team have been feeding the minds of their children. Decades later a Black former South High football star tells me the n-word had been dropped regularly by North High’s feeder teams in years prior during peewee games. “We knew the level of hatred against our melting pot of a school,” he said. “That [North-South] game had been eagerly anticipated.”

IV. A Racism Origin Story

By the time Dad moves us to Geneva Avenue in 1976, the area is fairly mixed: Black, Mexican-American, Japanese-American, white. A wave of Vietnamese immigrants is on the way.

Our neighbors are Mexican-American on one side and white on the other. After the Mexican-American couple moves out, a Black man moves in. Dad doesn’t use that word when referencing him. He uses the n-word. There’s a clear hatred from my old man. Our neighbor avoids Dad, avoids all of us. You can see it in how quickly he enters his house, how he’s never outside, never greeting us. We never have a conversation in the four or five years we share the neighborhood.

I always wonder if Dad had ever really been a cop. In 2019, two decades after his death, one of my uncles says Dad’s cop stories were lies. I’d already seen photos of him in a uniform. Then a retired cop checking in to see if former academy members had died, phoned. Dad’s name had been on a list. Dad had definitely enrolled at the San Jose Police Academy in the 1960s. One of the first Latinos there, no less. Proof that he hung out with and had been influenced by powerful white men.

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But had he been an actual cop?

And if he had been a cop, why hadn’t he stuck with it? One family member said he couldn’t pass the height requirements at the time. Maybe he didn’t want some low-paying security gig as a result. That wasted police education maybe not only put that killer look in his eye, perhaps it transformed him into the assimilationist he was.

That means I was assimilated. No Spanish was taught in the home. Dad constantly told me I was white. He bought Confederate flags for my bedroom wall. Mostly American foods were put on the dinner table. Racist epithets were used in conversation and jokes. “Chicano” was never uttered.

Truth is, we’re a dual-ethnic family in our south Bakersfield neighborhood during those mid 1970s and early 1980s. The streets are rough for me as a result. Neighborhood fights get fueled by kids with giant boy egos and petty racial differences. More than a few punches get thrown. I usually just receive them. Terrified, I stand my ground, take some licks, never really understanding why fists matter. I toss a lunchpail at one kid’s head who fights my brother over us “peckerwoods” being in their hood. I’m too stupid to argue that I’m Mexican-American, Latino, or Hispanic. I think I’m white though my father’s brown as an oak-stained table. I run for my life. I hide in my room. I’m afraid of black vampires outside my window.

Dad just wants me to fight. He’s bragged for years that he was a cop. I want him to be a cop, my cop. But he doesn’t help or show me how to fight. He orders me to “straighten up,” to “be tough” with those n-word boys down the street. He talks tough, but what else is he? A brown cowboy? Some white image he’s pulled from American cinema? He loves John Wayne, Charles Bronson. He worships Dirty Harry, Billy Jack. Blazing Saddles. He wears a black cowboy hat. He drives a tanker truck hauling gas for an oil company. I later refer to him as mothertrucker. He carries a gun in a shoulder holster. He buys me and my brother cowboy hats and boots. He wants us to be him. He wants us to be what he isn’t.

V. Yell Leaders, Mascots and Monuments

Johnny and Jody Rebel stand on podiums on the edge of a stadium racetrack. All eyes on them in their Confederate uniforms as they lead cheers. It’s 1986. Johnny is a Mexican-American kid named Gabe. Jody is a Black girl named Georgia. Together they upend the image of the Confederate South. At the same time, they become a mockery, performing a bizarre cultural appropriation of oppressive white heritage that transforms students into puppetry. An entire mythology has been reproduced on the backs of Black and Mexican-American children. In this white thuggish military garb that literally screams enslavement, kids are transformed. They lose self-identity in the supremacist imagery before the crowd. They’re reduced to monuments. Symbols of a war meant to oppress, that sought to continue a way of life that made Southern planters wealthy.

The Confederate flag once flew over South High School. It was banned in 1968, the year I was born. No Confederate imagery is retired during my education there. Not the school mascot. Not the rebel military uniforms on yell leaders. Not the street names. Not the school names. Not even Plantation Elementary School.

Killing a flag wasn’t ever going to erase its shadowy image of oppression. Not with all the blue and grey. Not with all the misplaced school pride placed upon so many high school kids screaming rebel chants. A school’s fanatical pride isn’t unlike Southerner pride suggesting that times have changed when they haven’t.

VI. Marching

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Author, second to the right, marching.

On March 30, 2006, students from Bakersfield area high schools, including South High pour into downtown. I’m documenting the march for my blog wishing I’d been one of these high school kids as their throng enters a wide plaza outside the Rabobank Arena and Civic Auditorium.

Part of me is ashamed. Not for the kids. For me. But I don’t have time to reflect on South High, why it’s still seeped in Confederate mythology, or why my past haunts me. Right now it’s just me and a KERO news crew. We’re the only ones documenting this historic moment akin to the 1968 East L.A. blowout.

Then a car speeds alongside the curb. Out jumps Kern County’s controversial District Attorney Ed Jagels, mastermind of 25 false convictions during the Satanic Panic. Well-known for his ridiculous media posturing, he plants his face in his hands in mock desperation, as if the kids now swarming the plaza are about to climb the battlements and lay siege to a fountain.

A few days later I’m at Jastro Park documenting another rally alongside an AP news photographer. We’re on the same stage as Dolores Huerta. An ocean of red farm worker flags wave in front of her as she she dances with CSU Bakersfield professor Gonzalo Santos during a ranchera melody. I’m pulled into this. I’m feeling this intersection between farm workers, immigrant rights and the Chicano Movement. There’s something here I need to fight for.

By May 1st I’m taking part as an honored poet, hands shaking on stage at Beach Park, reading “Immigration! Interrogation!” to a sea of 10,000-15,000. It doesn’t enter my mind to think, Here I am, former South High Student on stage! Not at all. By this time, South High is lost to me, a place that should have corrected itself long ago. I take no pride in my connections to that institution, only shame. If anything, I close my eyes and see my street, Geneva Avenue. I see the paths I walked to school. I see the dirt fields and hear the train crashing over and over again.

Eleven years later it’s May 1, 2017. I text my youngest son Landen to see if he’ll come to Mill Creek Park to listen to me present, “The Mother of All Bombs,” a poem less about Donald Trump’s propaganda war machine, and more a revelation about ironies of oppression, the anger that is connected to it in relation to the southern Central Valley. I realize that one portion of the lengthy poem feels so much like it’s from where I grew up in South Bakersfield. Though about the oppression of place, I’ve generalized my own streets. I’ve hidden my old school, my old haunts, even my old living room on Geneva, with Dad inside telling me how white I am.

The Mother of All Bombs is the woman down the street
laughing at my words then waking up tomorrow realizing
she’s felt the heavy weight of America too.
How long did it take her to understand
she’d taken on the characteristics
of the oppressor, that she was insane, drooling
with madness in the Church of Intolerance,
while her own children were hungrier than ours
under the continued shame of Make America Great Again,
which here in the San Joaquin Valley is a
new special blend of McCarthyism.

After a long line of us march downtown, those of us who carried the American flag walk onto the stage. Music blasts from speakers. Some start dancing. I gaze into the crowd and see my son. I feel a pride I can’t explain. A connecting point. A circle re-attached. Landen and I were part of that march nearly eleven years before. He’d walked out with all those high school kids in 2006. We’d both later attended President Obama’s speech at La Paz, a historic dedication of Cesar Chavez’ resting place as a National Monument.

Prior to, and after that day in 2017, my son and I continue to share father-son discussions about art, words, music, taking risks, about not being afraid to make a statement about the world, and to the world. He’s often working on songs and sends rough cuts. Sometimes we call each other afterwards, talking about his latest lyrics, drum beats and guitar riffs. As we often do, we shift our focus to peoples and behaviors, to speaking up for others, to ways in which we can inject a more purposeful truth into our art. Inevitably, during these moments, I drift. Sometimes for only a second. That’s all it takes. The place is usually the same. I’m back in that old living room on Geneva Avenue. I see Dad’s face but I don’t hear anything as he talks to me. I see his eyes. I see that grim mouth. And I see change coming.

 

 

Nicholas Belardes’ work has appeared or is forthcoming in Latino Rebels, The Latinx Archive: Speculative Fiction for Dreamers (Ohio State University Press), Southwestern American Literature (Texas State University), Carve Magazine, and others. Read more at nicholasbelardes.com. Follow him on twitter @nickbelardes

Copyright: © 2020 Nicholas Belardes. 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/.

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”
Interviews

Rise Against the Machine: Interview with Adam Goodman

The rampant spread of coronavirus throughout the United States has illuminated undocumented migrants’ role as essential workers as well as their precarious position in this country. Indeed, Trump’s administration continues to find novel measures to expel undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. In The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants, Adam Goodman traces the United States’ efforts to expel and terrorize migrants as well as people’s efforts to stop the deportation machine. Historian Elliott Young spoke with Goodman about his new book and this long history. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Elliott Young (EY): What led you to this particular book project and how do you think it responds to the present immigration crisis?

Adam Goodman (AG): My interest in immigration started to deepen when I was living and teaching high school on the U.S.-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Seeing the ways that migration policies shaped both the region and the lives of my students and their families piqued my interest in learning more about migration history. When I got to graduate school, the historiography and the literature really captured my imagination. That was at the start of Obama’s first term, when there was a lot of attention on his immigration enforcement actions. The issues that have dominated news headlines in recent years are not unique to Trump and they didn’t start with Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton either; the origins of the deportation machine date back to the late nineteenth century.

EY: One of the big arguments you make in your book is that we need to consider all forms of deportation. That term deportation is used colloquially, but as you show the immigration bureaucracy divides these up into what are “voluntary returns” and so-called self-deportations where conditions are such that people are pushed out, along with formal removals that are done through a legal process. What kinds of insights does this more holistic view of these forms of deportation provide?

AG: Having this broader understanding of deportation sheds light on expulsion’s importance throughout the twentieth century, the fashioning of state power, and how deportation—or the possibility of being deported—shapes people’s lives. It also shifts the chronology. Deportation isn’t something that just emerges after the Immigration Act of 1996, which led to a spike in formal deportations, or after 9/11. There are a tremendous number of people who have been removed through formal deportations—8 million or so throughout US history. (The vast majority during the past 25 years.) But there are 48 million people who have been deported via voluntary departure, and an uncountable number of others who have left in response to self-deportation campaigns. So, if we want to understand the history of deportation, we need to expand our time frame and look at how 85-90% of the expulsions throughout U.S. history have happened. Which, in turn, reveals that Mexicans have been even more disproportionately targeted than we thought.

EY: Given that so many scholars start by looking at formal deportations to make the argument that everything changes in the 1980s and beyond, what do you think the qualitative differences are between the informal or voluntary returns versus the formal and legal deportations?

AG: It’s important to distinguish and delineate the different types of expulsion. I argue that we shouldn’t conflate them, but should instead understand how they work in conjunction with one another, because that’s how the deportation machine functions. Formal deportations, historically, have carried more severe penalties and consequences, including bans on re-entry of five, ten or twenty years, or sometimes even lifetime bans. You also might have to spend an extended or indefinite period of time in detention. Many people recognized that’s not a very appealing option and immigration authorities used the threat of bans on re-entry and of indefinite detention to coerce people into accepting administrative removals via voluntary departure. In the book, I equate this to the role plea bargains play in the criminal justice system. If officials threaten someone with 25 years in prison, they might take a plea for four years to mitigate the risk. It’s somewhat similar as to why someone would accept voluntary departure. I recognize the important difference between types of expulsion, while also arguing that voluntary departures have been punitive in nature. They weren’t simply part of a nod-and-wink system in which immigration authorities let people come and go in a pattern of circular migration while employers were able to maintain a cheap exploitable supply of workers. The stereotype of Mexicans as “illegal aliens” has been created, in part, through repeated apprehension and deportation via voluntary departure.

EY: Why does the government turn to the tactic of voluntary removal in the early twentieth century?

AG: Immigration officials never had the resources they needed to carry out the enforcement actions that Congress charged them with implementing. At different moments officials wanted to apprehend and deport more people, but they didn’t have the resources to do so. Congress wasn’t willing to provide them, and perhaps the United States public didn’t have the stomach for such actions either. This led to voluntary departures and informal means to deport people, which depended on giving discretion to low level immigration authorities who, within the system as a whole, had very little power, but had complete or near total power over any one individual migrant. That’s largely still the same today.

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Activist and organizer José Jacques Medina speaks to a crowd of more than 200 people at the Embassy Auditorium in Los Angeles, March 1977, Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

EY: You show in the book how the well-publicized workplace raids and other kinds of raids that happened in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s are calculated campaigns that sowed fear and terror in immigrant communities to provoke them to “self-deport.” Do you think the workplace raids in recent years are done for the same purpose? In other words, are these principally propaganda campaigns to instill fear in immigrant communities?

AG: This administration has ratcheted up the fear campaigns and is doing everything it can to instill fear in immigrant communities. That’s happening through public proclamations by officials; it’s happening by leaking things to the press and carefully placing stories; it’s happening by relying on an extensive network of restrictionist think tanks and policy groups that promote an anti-immigrant agenda within Washington in hopes of making it more mainstream. I should point out here that in spite of such self-deportations campaigns, the majority of people have stayed. When Trump took office there were an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Most of those people are still here. It’s important to recognize the way pervasive fear campaigns not only lead to self-deportation, but also affect and shape the lives of people who remain in the country.

EY: In one of your chapters, you describe the resistance by a group of shoe factory workers in South El Monte, right outside of Los Angeles. They refused to answer immigration agents’ questions and thereby blocked deportation efforts. This led to a lawsuit that in 1992 resulted in the recognition that immigrants are protected by certain elements of the Constitution and that immigration agents have to make immigrants aware of such rights when they’re being arrested. So, it’s a kind of success story in your book. But following that success story is a tremendous rise in the numbers of immigrants deported. I’m wondering whether legal strategies have been successful in protecting immigrants.

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Courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

AG: I’m interested in how people have endured, adapted, and fought against the machine. The chapter you’re referring to looks at the 1970s, in particular, what I call the dawn of the age of mass expulsion, when we see the number of deportations rise exponentially and reach 900,000-plus people per year (which continues until the end of the century). This was a different era. Building on the Chicano/a and civil rights movements, they took to the streets. They also took their fight to the courts, and the case of the shoe factory workers is an inspiring story because of how people organized. That was one of the key takeaways: It wasn’t individuals engaging in random acts of resistance, it was the joint efforts of immigrant workers, labor organizers, activists, and lawyers that threatened to bring the deportation machine to a halt.  The deportation machine was vulnerable and it remains so today. Part of the job of undocumented immigrants and their allies is to identify how the machine works and where its points of vulnerability are, and to press on them.

EY: Is the trend we see since 2000 positive, in that we have a decreasing number of total deportations even though formal removals have increased significantly, reaching their height under President Obama? How do you interpret the last two decades of deportation history?

AG:  How many people are deported each year matters, of course, but what also matters is how people are expelled and how the consequences of being deported have changed over time. What we see is that deportation has become more punitive and separation more permanent, because of the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the explosion in enforcement funding, and the rise in formal deportations. I’m interested in the experiences of deportees and understanding things from their perspective. Simply looking at the number of expulsions and stopping there isn’t sufficient.

EY: I want to bring you to the point where historians never want to go, which is thinking about policy. You’ve talked about how deportations have been a bipartisan policy for more than a century. And, you argue that no particular party or president is responsible for the creation of this deportation machine, something I would definitely agree with. That being said, what kinds of immigration policies would you advocate?  And do either the major political parties offer a way to turn the United States into a nation of immigrants, rather than a deportation nation as you described in your epilogue?

AG: The Trump administration has made immigration policy more partisan. Whereas Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress supported policies ramping up enforcement, today we see Democrats trying to stake out a different position. I’m a little skeptical about whether that will lead to real change; I’ll defer judgment. That being said, there are reforms that would solve a lot of the problems related to immigration policy. So much now is focused on national security and the needs of the nation, without reckoning with the fact that the migrants—the people these policies affect most—are very much a part of this nation. Allowing people to reunite with families, allowing people to come fill the country’s labor demands, creating more visa slots for Mexicans and doing away with the one-size-fits-all 20,000-person-per-year country quota are just some common sense proposals. Many people in the United States face real economic hardship, there’s no denying that. But scapegoating migrants is not the answer.

EY: The idea of prison abolition has been a powerful political way of conceptualizing the campaign against mass incarceration. I’m wondering if you think there should be a similar campaign to abolish immigration detention and deportation?

AG: Yes, and people are doing this work already. Groups like Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) here in Chicago, the Detention Watch Network, and many others. A lot of community-based, grassroots organizations across the country are advocating bold policy reforms and their voices need to be heard; those possibilities need to be on the table. Whether or not we see such radical change in our lifetime is up in the air. But one thing history teaches us is that sometimes, when we’re least expecting it, transformative change happens, and it usually isn’t by luck—it’s through organizing and through sustained struggle.

Goodman_Deportation.Machine_Jacket_FINAL (with border)

Adam Goodman teaches in the Latin American and Latino Studies Program and in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His writing on immigration history and policy has appeared in outlets such as the Washington PostThe Nation, and the Journal of American History. Goodman is a faculty advisor to UIC’s Fearless Undocumented Alliance, a co-convener of the Newberry Library’s Borderlands and Latino/a Studies seminar, and a co-organizer of the #ImmigrationSyllabus public history project. The Deportation Machine: America’s Long History of Expelling Immigrants (Princeton University Press, 2020) is his first book.

Elliott Young is Professor in the History Department at Lewis and Clark College. Professor Young is the author of Alien Nation: Chinese Migration in the Americas from the Coolie Era through WWIICatarino Garza’s Revolution on the Texas-Mexico Border, and co-editor of Continental Crossroads: Remapping US-Mexico Borderlands History, and a forthcoming book “Forever Prisoners: How the United States Built the Largest Immigrant Detention System in the World.” He is co-founder of the Tepoztlán Institute for Transnational History of the Americas. He has also provided expert witness testimony for over 250 asylum cases.

Copyright: © 2020 Adam Goodman and Elliott Young. 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/.

 

Reviews

Lunch Ladies and the Fight for School Food Justice: A Superhero Origin Story

Christine Tran

Plagued by unsavory stories in American popular culture, the lunch lady has been a mocked and villainized figure for decades. Yet, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds in real-time, lunch ladies across the country are emerging as unassuming superheroes feeding millions across the United States.

Because of school closures and an economic downturn, school food is assuming a major role in providing emergency meals for their communities. Some are doing so independently and others have partnered with local food banks, faith-based organizations, and the Red Cross. With nearly 75 million children under the age of eighteen across the country,[1] coupled with families losing their incomes at a startling rate, more and more people are in need of food. In the first three weeks of shelter-in-place orders, sixteen million Americans filed for unemployment[2] while in nearly the same three-week period, the Los Angeles Unified School District served five million meals to children and adults.[3]

Arroyo Knights. El Monte.

Arroyo High Schools in El Monte, California

Yet unlike the origin stories of comic book heroes, the history of the lunch lady has been almost entirely erased. Moreover, their collective stories have fallen victim to historical amnesia. As a result, school food, as a sector, is invisible to and undervalued by society. For decades, most lunch ladies held some of the lowest paying jobs in school systems, making hourly wages with little to no benefits—creating a lasting impact on their economic and social worth. This is the underappreciated workforce that the United States now looks to for support.

More than ever, it is important to elevate the origin story of the lunch lady. As comic books have taught us, we can’t undo the past but we can learn from it as we move on to create future narratives, where lunch ladies (and gentlemen, or more gender non-conforming “food folks”) are acknowledged and respected for the essential workers that they are, during and outside of a pandemic. To bring those narratives to light, Jennifer Gaddis gives us their origin story in The Labor of Lunch: Why We Need Real Food and Real Jobs in American Public Schools (UC Press, 2019).

In her book, Gaddis addresses implicit biases the reader may hold about lunch ladies by guiding us through a richly-layered history of school food and labor. Using archival photos and first-hand stories, she connects us with narratives that have been withheld from our collective consciousness. She addresses the inequities of this work head on by laying out the historic role that racial and economic discrimination, capitalism, and patriarchy played in perpetuating stereotypes of school food service workers.

Gaddis sets the stage for the book not in faraway time or even in a cafeteria. She starts the book in 2004 with Lisa, a 48-year-old assistant cook, testifying in front of a local school board: “Good evening, distinguished board members and all in the room who have an ethical obligation to our children. I see some faces whose children I have had the honor of personally feeding. I use the word honor because it is the highest trust a parent can give, letting someone else care and nurture their children” (1). In her own words, Lisa addresses the board as an advocate and labor union member, identities not often associated with lunch ladies.

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UNITE HERE Local 1 workers gather in protest outside Chicago Public Schools head-quarters in April 2012 as part of a series of actions in their real-food, real-jobs campaigns.Courtesy UNITE HERE

Further so, she aptly titles the first chapter of the book, “The Radical Roots of School Lunch.” This foundational section to the book disaggregates the history you may find on the internet when you search for “school lunch.” Gaddis tells a history of a movement that began half a century before the passing of the 1946 National School Lunch Act, by firmly rooting school food history alongside feminist history, calling it a “product of generations of women’s activism.” In fact, school lunch started out in the 1890s  as a localized “penny lunch” program as part of a “nonprofit school lunch movement.” It was born out of a public necessity to feed extremely poor children, “not as private, gendered responsibility” (18). School lunch, along with kindergarten and public kitchens, were just some approaches advocates used to create new forms of public caregiving to support the changing roles of women during this industrializing era.

A federal policy that paves the way for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) can appear to be a win, but who is actually benefiting from the program? Gaddis examines the systemic racial inequities that excluded many populations of color under the federal school lunch program. In the chapter, “The Fight for Food Justice,” Gaddis discusses the role of the Black Panther Party in organizing local support for poor black communities whose needs were unmet by the government. In 1968, a group of Oakland mothers worked alongside the Panthers to start the very first Free Breakfast for Children Program. This program resulted in a national movement of localized expansion in poor black communities that would feed tens of thousands of poor black children across the country while exposing inequities, and demonstrating to the American public “a working example of how social reproduction could be collectivized at the neighborhood scale in a truly egalitarian fashion” (62).

In addition to social and political movements, the chronology of school food is also heavily influenced by the industrialization of food and rise of the cheap food economy, as well as the government’s role in regulating what goes into school meals. In 1981, the Reagan administration reduced the school food budget by one-third, resulting in the need to cut costs by changing regulations to include cheaper substitutes. A task force was convened to discuss cheaper alternatives to certain meal components: “Suddenly corn chips, pretzels, doughnuts, and pies could all pass as ‘bread’ in the NSLP” (98). Gaddis also describes the shifting labor of school lunch, as more central kitchen models were being constructed and for-profit Big Food factories began receiving more contracts to turn commodity foods like chicken into nuggets. These shifts led to reheating already prepared foods and diminishing a school cafeteria’s capacity to cook from scratch. This period, according to Gaddis, had a stark effect on the school food programming across the country.

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Workers making prepack sandwiches in a central kitchen facility. Records of the Office of  the Secretary of Agriculture, 1974-ca. 2003, National Archives and Records Administration.

Despite the challenges that exist in school food, Gaddis positions a lofty goal for the school food sector: “Empowering school kitchen and cafeteria workers to cook real food from scratch using locally sourced and school-grown ingredients can transform the entire culture of [NSLP]” (174). Rather than one-off solutions or one-size fits all approaches, Gaddis offers several examples to realize this “real food economy.” One approach is farm-to-school, by which schools can connect and buy directly from local farmers. This type of programming effectively builds relationships with food so that we know where it comes from. This requires coordinated efforts and investments: “Establishing comprehensive farm-to-school programs that combine local food procurement, school gardening, and classroom education takes significant effort that is difficult to sustain without grant funding and personal donations” (196). Identifying and working with local partners is key to making this change. Gaddis reminds us of this shared responsibility: “The NSLP is a public program. And we, the public, can reimagine and ultimately transform it into an engine for positive social and economic change” (214). We must remember that to feed children, we must also employ people to serve, cook, transport, and grow food. In effect, this would stimulate the economy, not take away from it.

Making these sweeping changes to the school food system requires a greater shift in society. Gaddis positions the notion of a real school food system into a new economy of care. How do we care about school food and the labor behind it? Gaddis reminds us that the value of school food and labor is dependent on our collective respect for it: “It’s up to us to change the paradigm. Cheapness is not synonymous with public value.” (228). Now more than ever, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, food service workers across the country need this paradigm shift as they risk their own health to feed millions of children. By valuing their labor and school food we can better support them on the frontlines of this public health crisis.

Notes

[1] https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/number-of-children

[2] https://apnews.com/20a7e14dada836862b250b54a11305dd

[3] https://civileats.com/2020/04/07/with-schools-closed-some-districts-are-feeding-more-people-than-food-banks/

 

Christine Tran is a food and education advocate from South El Monte, California. She is passionate about people, places, food, and stories that connect us all. Her diverse background in education, food justice, communities, and policy has taken her across the country and around the world. As a multimedia storyteller, she aspires to spark dialogues to deepen our understanding of each other, the food we eat, and the world we share. Christine is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington studying Educational Leadership, Policy & Organizations. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees in Asian American Studies and English, as well as a Master of Education from UCLA. She also holds a Master of Arts in sociology from Columbia University in the City of New York.

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

Articles

Yemeni Farm Workers and the Politics of Arab Nationalism in the UFW

Neama Alamri

Growing up in the Central Valley, the history of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Cesar Chavez loomed large. When teachers in school incorporated him into our history lessons, many of the students were already familiar with the impact he and the farm worker movement had on the lives of farm workers in California. Yet, despite being born and raised in the Central Valley, as a Yemeni American, I didn’t always identify with the history of the UFW which primarily focused on the experiences of Mexican and Filipino laborers. It was not until my father shared with me that he attended Chavez’s rallies during his time picking grapes near Delano in the 1970s, that I began to discover the role Yemenis played in the UFW. My father’s stories unlocked for me an entire history of Yemenis in the Central Valley and their experiences in the farm worker movement.

The UFW and the farm worker movement led by Cesar Chavez has been well documented and has allowed historians to explore the successes and failures of perhaps the most well-known labor movement in United States history.[1] There has been an effort from both scholars and public institutions such as the National Parks Services to improve public history on the UFW and address many of the misunderstandings within this history by engaging in public storytelling through academic scholarship, historical landmarks, and even children’s literature.[2] Following in the path of this work, this article begins with my father’s stories in order to explore the history of Yemeni farm workers in the Central Valley and their involvement in the UFW throughout the 1970s. For those familiar with the farm worker movement, the inclusion of Yemenis is limited to the death of Nagi Daifallah, a young Yemeni immigrant and UFW organizer killed by a deputy sheriff in Lamont, California. Not often discussed, however, is the fact that during Nagi’s funeral march in August of 1973, Yemenis decided to carry a portrait of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a leader of anti-colonial Arab nationalism. Based on an oral history with my father as well as archival material that has been largely ignored, including Nagi Daifallah’s papers, this article contextualizes why Yemenis turned to Arab nationalism and the impact it had on the UFW’s social justice platform. By exploring the life of Nagi and other Yemeni farm workers, this article looks at this understudied chapter in the UFW’s history to argue that because of their Arab and Muslim identities as well as invocation of anticolonial Arab nationalism, Yemenis had a complicated relationship with the union that disrupts the narrative of a multicultural movement.

My father, Mohamed Alamri, immigrated to the United States from Yemen in the summer of 1975. He first arrived in Dearborn, Michigan where there existed a large Yemeni community, thousands of whom were working in Detroit’s booming auto industry for companies like Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Less prominent in numbers, yet growing each year, was the community of Yemenis in California, which everyone in Dearborn told Mohamed was where you can find the “real money.” Driven by the motivation to find a job that could provide the most for his parents and siblings back in Yemen, Mohamed hopped a plane to California. The first job he landed was in Poplar, a small town 70 miles south of Fresno, picking grapes. Mohamed recalled how the other Yemenis at the labor camp laughed when he arrived dressed in a tie, button-down shirt, and slacks. Growing up in Yemen and hearing of America’s wealth and luxury, he wanted to look his best. Yet, after a long day toiling under the summer heat, Mohamed quickly learned that working in the fields of Central Valley was not very different than village life in Yemen.[3] 

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Mohamed, right, after a day’s work in Poplar, CA. Courtesy of author

 Mohamed joined thousands of Yemeni farm workers who found work in the fields from the late 1960s to the end of the 1970s. Due to lack of official records, it is unclear exactly how many Yemeni farm workers there were during this period, but estimates range from a few hundred to over five thousand.[4] Yemenis migrated within three major agricultural regions within California: the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley and the Imperial Valley. [5]   Migration cycles began with the April asparagus harvest in Stockton, and then moved to the southern end of the valley in the Delano-Porterville-Bakersfield area for the grape harvest until the end of November. Then, many Yemenis moved to Arvin or Coachella where the grapevine-pruning season began. They eventually returned to the Delano-Porterville area to complete more grapevine pruning and remained in that area until the next migration cycle.[6] Like other farm workers, Yemenis faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. They were, however, seen as desirable by employers. As growers were faced with the increasing resistance and union organizing amongst Mexican and Filipino workers, many were eager to employ Yemenis whom they believed were docile and “easier to control.”[7] The growers did not anticipate the fact that not only would Yemenis organize alongside the UFW, but were also equipped with radical politics inspired by events in Yemen as well as their Muslim and Arab identities, differentiating them from their Mexican and Filipino counterparts.

For my father and many other Yemenis who grew up in the context of decolonization and revolution in Yemen, the UFW’s emphasis on social justice was both identifiable and appealing. The 1960s and 1970s were a time of tumultuous political changes in former North and South Yemen. With the spread of Arab nationalism inspired by Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as anti-colonial movements throughout the world, North and South Yemenis were inspired to challenge systems of power. In 1963, the National Liberation Front was established in South Yemen in order to decolonize the British Protectorate of Aden.[8] Meanwhile, in North Yemen, military rebels fought to overthrow the ruling monarchy at the time and establish a republic. In 1967, South Yemen successfully decolonized Aden, ending over a hundred years of British imperial presence in the region, and became a Marxist regime known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. A year later in 1968, North Yemen overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Yemen.  The wars in South and North Yemen as well as the end of British colonization in Aden, led to a deterioration of Yemen’s economy. With many families facing poverty, Yemen’s largest economic export became its labor force, consisting primarily of men. Although Yemenis had been migrating for work beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, the 1960s and 1970s saw large scale labor migration of Yemenis to other parts of the world, including Britain, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the United States. The 1965 Immigration Act, which ended restrictive immigration policies, increased Yemeni immigration to the United States.  By the 1970s, many of the Yemenis arriving in the United States worked in automobile factories in Detroit, Michigan, steel plants in Buffalo, New York, and agricultural farms across California. The experiences of Yemeni immigrants in California were reflective of many of the experiences of Arab immigrants who arrived post-1965. Yet, unlike other Arab immigrants, primarily from Lebanon and Syria, who arrived in the early twentieth century, Yemenis who came to the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s were predominantly working-class and Muslim.[9]  While many Arabs in the U.S. prior to the 1960s had been racialized as white, the intersection of class and religion racialized Yemeni immigrants as non-white, “other” minorities.

Alongside increased employment by growers, there are several reasons why Yemenis came to California. Many came to the U.S. with agricultural experience in Yemen already, as families usually owned a few acres in which they grew and harvested their own food. Following the wars in Yemen, however, a decline in national resources and limited economic opportunities pushed most families to rely on foreign imports. Another strategy included sending relatives, usually young men, to other countries for work in order to earn money for the entire family. In the mid-twentieth century, the booming California agricultural industry offered immediate employment opportunities to many young Yemeni men who came to the U.S. with some agricultural experience in hopes of supporting their families back home. Another channel by which Yemenis came to California was a credit system established by Trans World Airlines (TWA). The system was allegedly backed by growers to help expedite travel for immigrants, predominantly young men from Yemen. Although not Mohamed’s experience, based on testimonies from UFW volunteers and the few secondary sources available, there are speculations that growers themselves funded the travel to bring groups of young men from Yemen to work.[10] Through this system, a relative or friend residing in California paid a $100 deposit with a cosigner in Yemen for a plane ticket from the TWA costing $800 with the condition that upon arrival the worker would pay the beneficiary back. While providing loans to help travel from Yemen was common between Yemenis, the involvement of the TWA in facilitating this communal practice was unusual. Yemenis who came in through the TWA credit system arrived in the dozens and essentially went straight from the airport to the hiring halls. A spokesman representing a group of workers would initiate applications for social security numbers so the workers could begin working as soon as possible.[11] There are several discrepancies between the numbers provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service records which reports 380 alien Yemenis registered in 1974 as opposed to the numbers given by the TWA office in Los Angeles which reports 100,000 in the decade leading up to 1974.[12] This discrepancy indicates the possibility that the number reported by TWA were of undocumented Yemenis.

Yemeni farm workers faced several obstacles from low wages, language barriers, and limited access to health care and social services. Similar to other farm workers, the conditions for Yemenis were inextricably linked to the exploitive system established by the growers. Faced with the precarities of being a low-wage laborer and immigrant, it was no surprise, then, that the UFW appealed to Yemenis. Beginning in the late 1960s, there were at least 500 Yemeni UFW members, although the numbers were likely higher.[13] The UFW offered Yemenis a platform to advocate, assert their presence, and gain resources. Amongst many things, the UFW worked to provide Arabic translators for Yemeni workers, halal food in the labor camps, as well as access to health care. While health issues such as tuberculosis and respiratory infections were common among farm workers, many Yemenis suffered from schistosomiasis, an intestinal infection caused by contact of parasites in water endemic in Yemen. The UFW tested and treated hundreds of Yemenis.[14]

While the UFW was accommodating to needs of Yemeni workers by providing them with services, the invocation of Arab nationalism also threatened the UFW’s platform and reputation amongst supporters. Throughout the first half of the 1970s, the peak of Yemeni immigration to California, Yemeni farm workers were present for some of the most successful as well as contentious years of the UFW.[15] As the UFW fought to sustain their success following the 1970 historic grape contracts, Yemenis were a strategic group to mobilize.  The UFW hired several Yemeni organizers in order to reach out to the Yemeni community, many of whom only spoke Arabic.[16] Some of these organizers included: Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah. Saeed Mohamed Al-Alas a UFW organizer from Aden, the capital of former South Yemen, organized with the UFW in the early 1970s and was the lead organizer for a funeral march in Porterville honoring the life of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.[17] Ahmed Shaibi who was also South Yemeni was hired by the UFW in 1977 and served for the union for several years before opening the first local chapter of the Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee in Delano in 1982. Lastly Nagi Daifallah, whose untimely death profoundly impacted the trajectory of the union, was also a union organizer.[18]

Like Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas, Ahmed Shaibi, and Nagi Daifallah, those with a background in social justice activism in Yemen, including anti-colonial and Arab nationalist ideologies, became involved as organizers the UFW. While these ideologies had origins in the context of political changes in Yemen and the Middle East, they were not mutually exclusive from the issues Yemeni farm workers faced in the Central Valley. Yemenis invoked these political identities as a way to assert themselves as immigrants in California, as well as, define their involvement in the farm worker movement. One example of this was a funeral march for Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an ardent leader of Arab nationalism, that was organized by Yemeni farm workers in Porterville.  On October 1, 1970, after Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack, local Yemenis planned a funeral march in his honor. Nearly one thousand Yemeni farm workers in Porterville attended a funeral march to mourn the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Led by a drummer, marchers carried an American flag alongside the United Arab Republic flag and a portrait of the late President Nasser covered in a black veil.[19] In an article of the union’s newsletter, El Malcriado, documenting the event, Yemeni UFW organizer Saeed Mohammed Al-Alas stated, “Nasser has been a father to us. He was the only great leader we had. He brought all the Arabs together, began economic programs, and threw the British out of Egypt. He was really interested in the people.”[20] Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement on Nasser discussed three political projects: Arab unity, economic justice and lastly anti-colonialism. All of these things contextualized Mohammed Al-Alas’ involvement in fighting for farm worker justice in California. When asked why he remains in the Central Valley he replied, “Where else could I do as much for my countrymen?”[21] Evident in Mohammed Al-Alas’ statement, and for many other Yemenis, politics rooted in Arab nationalism and decolonization were not separate from their identities as UFW supporters and immigrants in the Central Valley. Highlighted in the union’s newsletter, the inclusion of  Yemenis in the movement in the early 1970s helped boost the union’s reputation for multicultural social justice, particularly at a time when Filipino farm workers became disillusioned with Chavez’s leadership.[22] Yet, the turn to anti-colonial Arab nationalism radicalized Yemenis in a way that was illegible to the UFW’s mission.

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Chavez, center, marching with Yemeni activists, Delano, CA, 1973. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Three years later, in August of 1973, the portrait of Nasser would be carried once more, this time to mourn the death of Nagi Daifallah. Nagi’s death occurred in the midst of combative union politics between the UFW and the Teamsters, police violence against workers, as well as police and grower collaboration. On July 29, 1970, the UFW signed what would come to be known as the historic grape contracts, ending the five-year-long grape strike and boycott that began in Delano and marked the first collective bargaining agreement for farm workers in California. The UFW’s fight for farm worker justice did not end there, of course. In the summer of 1973, as the UFW’s three-year grape contracts came up for renewal, strikes took place again after growers signed sweetheart contracts with the Teamsters union without an election. Thousands of strikers were arrested, and hundreds suffered injuries at the hands of law enforcement.[23] On the evening of August 13, 1973, a group of farm workers and UFW volunteers and organizers stood outside a café in Lamont, California. Deputy Sheriff Gilbert Cooper arrived on the scene to arrest picket captain Frank Quintana on charges of disturbing the peace. Several workers began to protest Quintana’s arrest; among them was a 24-year-old farm worker from Yemen, Nagi Daifallah.[24] Upon protest of Quintana’s arrest, Sheriff Cooper began harassing Nagi. As Nagi attempted to run away, Cooper swung a metal flashlight at his head causing severe injuries to his spinal cord.[25] Nagi was left to die on the pavement. While harassment by police was a common reality faced by strikers, workers, and UFW organizers, the death of Nagi sent shock waves through the union and deeply impacted the trajectory of the farm worker movement. On August 17, 1973 over 7,000 Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino mourners gathered at the Forty Acres union field office in Delano, the “cradle” of the farm worker movement to attend Nagi’s funeral march.[26] Yemeni farm workers, UFW volunteers, organizers, and Cesar Chavez himself, marched in silence alongside Nagi’s casket in solidarity against the violence and systemic oppression perpetuated by agribusiness. Chavez spoke very highly of Nagi who was an organizer for the union and was deemed a martyr for the movement.

Facing a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, Nagi’s death brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities in solidarity, if only for a moment. His death provided an opportunity for the UFW to emphasize that the movement was for all immigrants and people of color. In his eulogy statement for Nagi Chavez highlighted his immigrant identity stating that “Nagi had come to this country from his native Yemen looking for a better life” and “gave himself to the grape strike and the struggle for justice for all farm workers.” Yet, the picture of Nagi painted by Chavez and the UFW portrayed him as simply a passive victim of his circumstances. In his eulogy, Chavez stated how Yemeni workers were, “the latest group of people to come to California to be exploited by the California growers” and that “most of them, like Nagi, were young men in their early twenties, they were unusually shy, of slight frame, Moslem, spoke no English, and live in barren labor camps.” [27] By characterizing the movement for all immigrants and people of color, Chavez answered to critics at the time who accused the UFW for being ethnocentric by prioritizing Mexican workers as well as being too Catholic-based. It also addressed critiques that the UFW was too dependent on white, middle class volunteers and advisors.[28]

However, the characterization of Nagi as “unusually shy,” portrayed him as a passive victim as opposed to the political activist he was. Beyond the dominant narrative which focuses solely on Nagi’s death, the writings and letters he left behind for his father offer a look into his experiences working in the fields and being involved with the UFW.  In actuality, when Nagi became a UFW organizer he already had experience in political activism back in Yemen. Nagi, originally from North Yemen, became politically involved at a young age. While going to school in Aden (South Yemen) during British occupation, Nagi publicly stood against the British as well as the North Yemeni government, which resulted in his imprisonment for some time. As a young man, Nagi was arrested for pulling down both the British flag and the North Yemen flag in an act of protest while attending a college in Aden.[29]  Furthermore, based on letters he wrote to his father, it was evident that rather than being shy and inexperienced, Nagi  had a keen understanding of how power and exploitation was operating within agribusiness. In a letter to his father, Nagi wrote:

Dearest father, you will be amazed at this which I am writing to you in this letter about the prisons for workers in American, and (when I) tell you how much an agriculture worker suffers and endures in terms of severe ill-will from the landlords of ranches. These workers live in encampments that resemble military barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and a massive barrier of governmental agents, who forbid anyone from contacting the workers, or even conversing with their friends, except by signals, or when they are completely outside the camp, where they are far from the police. The landowners do not permit the workers to work in agriculture, except under laws the ranch-owners impose on them, with less than legal wages and insufficient safety precautions for the workers.[30]

He vividly paints a picture about the life farm workers, comparing the labor camps to prisons and war camps. He discusses grower exploitation of workers through, not only controlling their wages, but also by limiting access to services and communication and purposely putting them in unsafe conditions.[31] Nagi, like other Yemeni workers, also understood his oppression in both local and global ways, comparing his experiences in the Central Valley to those of living under an oppressive regime in Yemen.

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Funeral ceremony for martyr Nagi Daifullah. Courtesy of Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

The inclusion of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s portrait during Nagi’s funeral march represented this understanding that politics in the Central Valley were inseparable from global politics, like Arab nationalism. Alongside Nasser’s portrait, Yemeni workers carried flags representing the United States, Yemen, and the UFW, but it was Nasser’s image that would prove to be the most controversial. After Daifallah’s funeral, Chavez received several letters from supporters who were extremely disappointed to see Nasser, whom they viewed as an extremist and anti-Semitic, associated with the UFW and the movement.  One example was a letter dated September 17, 1973 from Nate Bodin, President of the Local 800, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, of which the UFW was an independent affiliate.[32] Bodin wrote to Chavez expressing disapproval at the inclusion of Nasser’s image, a man he compared to “Hitler or Porfirio Diaz [sic].”[33] Bodin attached the image from the funeral march with Nasser’s portrait, which was published in The Los Angeles Times. He first pointed out how Local 800 has financially supported the UFW and then requested the UFW produce a statement regarding the Nasser portrait:

We know you to be a man of great courage and honesty. We know that unity among people of good-will is crucial. We applaud your efforts and wish you well with all the resources we can muster. However, we would like to have a statement from you regarding the above matter. We would like to know how you stand regarding the use of the representative of a people (Nasser) who have been in our opinion, misguided. We think the choice of ‘hero’ was a poor one for this sad occasion.[34]

These letters demonstrated that the portrait of Nasser, a leader of Arab nationalism and Palestinian liberation threatened the UFW’s relationship with the AFL-CIO, an organization that boosted the union’s platform nationally. The decision to include Nasser spoke politically to the connections Yemeni workers made between social injustices abroad with the injustices they faced as farm workers in the U.S. However, it put Chavez and the UFW in a very tough situation and threatened the union’s support from pro-Israeli organizations as well as Jewish American religious leaders. Based on a social justice platform rooted in American civil rights discourse, the UFW was not prepared to take on global politics of Arab nationalism nor the question of Palestine.[35]  It became clear that the presence of Yemenis alongside the portrait of Nasser, was not only illegible to this platform, but challenged the very possibility of a truly multicultural movement.

In response to Bodin’s letter as well as letters from other disappointed supporters, Chavez and his assistants wrote back attempting to diffuse the situation. In these letters, Chavez invoked Nagi’s victimhood and martyrdom in order to depoliticize the presence of Nasser’s portrait and continue positive relations with the angry supporters.[36] In one of these letters Chavez wrote:

Nagi’s death and his funeral procession were deeply personal events for thousands of our members. As a movement, we were both mourning his loss and standing in solidarity with his family. If you can place yourself in that very personal context I think you will understand why no one in the farm workers union can, in retrospect, cast negative reflections on what happened during the Nagi’s funeral march.[37]

It is evident that while Yemeni farm workers chose to march with the image of Nasser in expression of their political identities as Arabs and the UFW did not object to this, Chavez and his leadership, on the other hand, were not prepared to be associated with a pro-Palestine Arab leader. The controversy over Nasser’s portrait demonstrated the ways in which the UFW navigated between communities and conflicting definitions of social justice in order to uphold the portrayal of an inclusive, multiethnic farm worker movement. When Daifallah was killed and deemed a martyr of the movement, the UFW opened its arms to the Yemeni community. With the Yemeni community now on Chavez’s side, however, the UFW’s position on global issues such as the question of Palestine, suddenly mattered. While the death of Nagi Daifallah brought together Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino communities on the basis of a shared oppression by law enforcement and agribusiness, it also highlighted the ways in which solidarities can be complicated and difficult to maintain. The visibility of Yemenis at Daifallah’s funeral and the controversy surrounding Nasser’s portrait revealed the complicated space Yemenis occupied within the movement.  My own father’s experience demonstrates this as well. [38]

My father, Mohamed, proudly recalled attending Chavez’s rallies and being a UFW member. He told me that after all these years, he even saved his union card. After scrimmaging through some old boxes to find the card, we discovered he was actually a Teamsters member, a rival union to the UFW notorious for implementing scare tactics and even physical violence against workers.[39] Although Mohamed aligned with the UFW ideologically, he remembered that in order to keep his job he had to join the Teamsters, which was the case for many workers.  My father’s memory of the union card is in many ways symbolic of the complicated relationship Yemenis had with the UFW. The notion that Yemenis had a place in a union of other immigrants of color seemed ideologically sound but often lacked substance. In reality, the presence of Yemenis highlighted the complicated, sometimes tense, interactions between ethnic groups, both outside and inside the UFW. This is not to say that solidarities never existed between Yemeni, Mexican, and Filipino workers in the UFW, but rather that a celebratory or simplistic narrative obscures this complicated history.

The history of Yemeni farm workers expands the farm worker movement’s narrative and uncovers the role that Yemeni American activists had in U.S. labor movements. However, we must avoid simple additive history in which marginalized groups are just added into narratives. A few years back, I attended a UFW event and was approached by a woman with a rather confused look her face that asked: “So what do you have to do with all of this?” I knew exactly what she had meant, she was curious as to what a Muslim, Arab American woman possible had to do with the histories of the UFW. I explained to her that my father when he first immigrated to the U.S. from Yemen had worked as a farm worker and that I am now researching the history of Yemeni involvement in the UFW – but, I felt this explanation was simply not enough. There is the sort of obvious connection Yemenis have with this movement like having been present, attending Chavez’s rallies, and engaging in organizing.  Simply put, they were there. But beyond simply inserting Yemenis in this history, we must interrogate the broader historical significance of these narratives. This includes asking why Yemenis have been marginalized within this history. Part of the answer is that numerically speaking, there simply were not as many Yemeni farm workers during that time compared to the majority Mexican and Filipino laborers. However, the other reason why Yemenis have been overlooked has to do with how their engagement with Arab nationalism disrupted the UFW’s mission.

By 1982, there were no Yemeni UFW organizers. In that same year, Ahmed Shaibi, who had formerly organized with the UFW, established the Delano chapter of the American Anti-Arab Discrimination Committee (ADC). Shaibi saw a dire need for an organization that focused on the specific needs of the Yemeni community. Shaibi estimated that Arabs inhabited nearly 90 percent of labor camps in Delano and yet, there was nowhere they could go for social services. This was particularly challenging due to language barriers Yemeni workers faced and the lack of translators who spoke Arabic. However, the promise that the ADC had for Yemenis in the Central Valley never reached its full potential. By 1985, the same year that Palestinian American Alex Odeh, the West Coast regional director of the ADC, was murdered by a bomb planted in his Santa Ana office the ADC in Delano was defunct.[40] The closing of the Delano ADC was most likely a direct reaction of Odeh’s murder, as many Yemeni and Arab American activists feared the consequences of political activism.

During the same time the ADC closed, the majority of Yemenis who worked as agricultural laborers left the fields for other jobs.  Many of them found occupations in major California cities such as San Francisco as janitors, opened grocery stores, or returned to Yemen. Today, many Yemenis own small businesses in the same cities that they originally worked in as farm workers. Asking my father about his initial years in the U.S. as a farm worker unraveled an entire history of Yemenis in the UFW that I otherwise would not have known because it is not recognized in the official narrative or visibly present in the archives. This signifies the importance of building new archives as marginalized stories live on through the people around us, sometimes those closest to us.

The experiences of Yemenis in the UFW is an important chapter in the history of the Central Valley’s Yemeni community, a population that has significantly grown in numbers in the past few years. These stories contribute to the historiography of rural California and multiracial communities in the Central Valley. Alongside the history of other immigrant groups in the Central Valley including Mexican, Filipino, and Punjabi laborers, the experiences of Yemenis underscore how the local is deeply intertwined with global politics like Arab nationalism. The history of the Yemeni American community matters now more than ever. As Yemeni Americans face increasing restrictive immigration legislation and xenophobic rhetoric, this history is a reminder that Yemenis have long been a part of U.S. history, despite not always being recognized.

Notes

[1] See: Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014); Frank Bardacke, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, (London: Verso, 2011); Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press,2012); Ana Raquel Minian, “‘Indiscriminate and Shameless Sex’: The Strategic Use of Sexuality by the United Farm Workers.” American Quarterly (2013, Volume, 65.1): 63–90.  2013; Miriam Pawel, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez: A Biography, (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2014).

[2] Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment,” National Park Services U.S. Department of the Interior, (Fall 2013).; Dawn Bohulano Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, (Bridge and Delta Publishing, 2018); Ray Rast, Cesar Chavez Special Resource Study and Environmental Assessment, with multiple co-authors. San Francisco: National Park Service, Pacific West Region, 2012.

[3] Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.

[4] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Mohamed Alamri interview by Neama Alamri, April 5, 2015.;”Voices from the Heartland: Young Yemeni Americans Speak,” Middle Eastern Resources Online.  http://www.mearo.org/yemeni-americans/san-joaquin-valley.php

[5] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[6] Juan J. Sanchez and Solache Saul, “Yemeni Agricultural Workers in California: Migration Impact,” Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund Records, Bulk 1968-1995, box 18, folder 14, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University, Stanford CA.

[7] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 208.

[8] Robert Stookey, South Yemen: A Marxist Republic in Arabia, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1982).

[9] Gregory Orfalea, The Arab Americans: A History, (Northampton: Olive Branch Press, 2006), 153

[10] Marcia Aronson, “My Involvement in the United Farm Workers of America 1973-1978,” Farm Worker Documentation Project

[11] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” in Arabs in America: Myths and Realities, (Wilmette: Medina University Press International, 1975), 206-207.

[12] Mary Bisharat, “Yemeni Migrant Workers in California,” 208.

[13] Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California.”

[14] Clinic Program for Arab Members,” 9 March 1973, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego.

[15] Matthew Garcia, 15.

[16] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker.” El Malcriado. Nov. 1, 1970. Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.; Ron Kelley, “Yemeni Farmworkers in California,” in Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience, ed. Jonathan Friedlander (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.

[19] “Morning March Here For Nasser,” 30 Sept. 1970, Porterville Recorder, Porterville Public Library; “Nasser Buried, Mideast Sad,” 1 Oct. 1970, Porterville Recorder.

[20] “UFWOC: A Strong Union for the Arab Farm Worker,” 1 Nov. 1970, El Malcriado, Farm Worker Documentation Project. UC San Diego Library.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Matthew Garcia, 103-105.

[23] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, 100

[24]15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA.

[25] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Nadine Naber, “The Yemeni UFW Martyr,” Middle East Research and Information Project, vol. 44 (Winter 2014).

[26] 15,000 farm workers honor fallen strikers,” El Malcriado, September 21, 1973, Farm Worker Documentation Project, UC San Diego Library, San Diego, CA. ; Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 62.

[27] “UFW Martyrs: Nagi Daifallah,” United Farm Workers,  www.UFW.org.

[28] Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory, (University of California Press, 2014), 127

[29] United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[30] Chris Hartmire Personal Papers, Retrieved from Miriam Pawel; Arabic version is from United Farm Workers Administration Collection, Box 114, Folder 3, “Martyr Nagi Mohsin Daifallah Handad, 17 June 1980,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[31] Ibid.

[32] In 1972, the UFW was officially affiliated with the AFL-CIO and created a national executive board. This was also when they changed their name from United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) to United Farm Workers of America, known simply by their acronym, “UFW.” The affiliation with the AFL-CIO boosted the political platform of the UFW nationally. See Matthew Garcia, “Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-217

[33] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[34] UFW Work Department, Box 3, File 1, Daifullah, Nagi, 1973,” Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[35] In my dissertation, I explore Nagi’s funeral march as well as the 1973 October War with more depth. Chavez, for example, received many requests to take a stance in support of the state of Israel and eventually decided to issue a statement of support which received criticism from many UFW members and supporters. The UFW’s support of Israel also hurt their relationship with the Black Panther Party which had been Pro-Palestine from their founding. See Laura Araiza, To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 163.

[36] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[37] UFW Work Department Collection, Box 3, Folder 1, “Daifullah, Nagi 1973,” “Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

[38] Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

[39] Matt. Garcia. From The Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 99.

[40] Philip Diehl, “Arab advocate bridges gap between cultures,” 7 Dec. 1982, Delano Record, Delano Record Archives.; Delinda C. Hanley. “Arab Americans Demand Answers in 1985 Slaying of Alex Odeh,” The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Vol. 32.9, Dec. 2013

 

Neama Alamri is completing her PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at UC Merced and will be finished by May 2020. She will continue to work on her book project, “Long Live the Arab Worker: A Transnational History of Labor Activism in the Yemeni Diaspora,” which examines how Yemeni workers and activists, throughout the 20th century highlighted the connections between local challenges in the diaspora with global politics of empire.

Copyright: © 2020 Neama Alamri. 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

El Corrido del Copete

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.


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Original Art by Fernando Mendez Corona

Myriam Gurba

The only reason I was sitting at the bleachers was because I wanted to watch this bitch get her ass kicked. This bitch, Karen, happened to be my neighbor. She lived behind a wall of pines, in a two-story mansion you could kind of see from my parents’ biggest bedroom window.

Karen’s pro-life mom drove a talking sedan and in a robot voice, the car would condescend to passengers, nagging Put on your seatbelt, whining Door ajar! I secretly hoped the car would kill Karen and her mother and I learned of its existence when a few of us missed the bus and Karen’s mom chauffeured us to the front steps of the shit show known as Orcutt Junior High.

Kids who went to Orcutt lied. Most of them claimed they went to school in Orcutt but according to zip code, these fools really went to school in Santa Maria. I knew why they said Orcutt. Claiming Orcutt was a way of claiming whiteness, a coded way of saying that you lived in the “unblemished” part of town. The assertion distanced you from Santa Maria. Santa Maria was “over there,” it was practically Tijuana: it was where “the Mexicans” lived.

Itty bitty Orcutt prided itself on not being brown and it styled itself as a low rent Mayberry replete with old timey storefronts that gave the place a settler vibe. When I ditched, I’d stroll Orcutt, noting its stock characters: the toothpick-sucking old white man shuffling about in dark denim overalls, the skinhead zooming downhill on his skateboard, the Christian youth group leader drooling over thirteen-year-olds eating fries in front of Charlies Burgers.

On clear days, you could see the ocean from Charlies. On even clearer days, you could see Casmalia, the toxic waste dump.

Karen wore the trappings of an oppressor. A pastel sock cascade devoured her cankles. Her denim shorts matched her denim vests. A scrunchie choked her half ponytail into place.

Scrunchie girls were the worst, scrunchies signaled a commitment to adolescent fascism, and Karen unleashed her KKKalifornia girl kuntiness on me the afternoon we first exchanged “pleasantries.” We were walking home from the bus stop, eucalyptus trees mentholated the air, and Karen eyed me like I was less than sirloin. The look gave me goosebumps, the ominous kind.

“What are you?” she blurted.

Dad had taught me to answer this question by declaring, “Chicana!” My intuition told me to keep it simple for my interrogator.

“Mexican.”

“Are you sure?”

Karen’s doubt took me aback. “Yeah. Why?”

“You have green eyes. Plus, you look Filipina.”

I remembered the Filipinos I’d played tag and kickball with up until last year, sixth grade. One playmate, Ted Aguinaldo, even told me that I was a very good kickball player for a girl. Ted’s family worshipped at the same church we did, Saint Mary’s, and Filipinos worked side-by-side with Mexicans in many places, including the hospital, the schools, and strawberry and broccoli fields surrounding town. Santa Maria was serious about strawberries, so much so that we had an annual festival where we crowned a Strawberry Queen. Such was our aristocracy.

I wondered how the fuck Karen was such an expert on Filipinos given that she lived in Orcutt’s whitest barrio: Lake Marie Estates. Yeah, I lived there, too, but I was, demographically speaking, the new non-White kid on the block.

“We had a housekeeper who was Filipina,” Karen continued. “You look like her.”

“Your housekeeper isn’t my mom.”

Karen kept staring at me, eyeballing my mustache, and I was on the verge of snapping, WHY DON’T YOU TAKE A FUCKING PICTURE?! when Karen’s attitude changed. In a fake friendly tone, she asked, “Have you seen Dirty Dancing?”

I shook my head.

“Don’t!” Karen barked. “It’s satanic!”

Karen was finally saying something interesting.

“Satanic!” I echoed. “Tell me more.”

Karen explained that since its plot involved abortion, Dirty Dancing was the devil’s film. Being twelve, I didn’t know what abortion was. I did, however, know the word abort and I wanted to abort this interrogation, go to the movies, get refreshments, and sin.

Karen and the rest of Lake Marie’s kids earned our distrust fast. Its preppy thugs welcomed us, the second Mexican-American family to take up residence there, by annihilating our mailbox with a baseball bat, aiming what the sheriff determined was a pellet gun at our windows and blasting them full of holes. I’m almost positive it was Karen and her flat-assed friends who snuck onto our property the night of the pentacle.

“Myriam!” Dad hollered one morning. “Go get the paper!”

I hurried across our porch, past Mom’s roses, and down our steep driveway. The paper had landed near a large agave. A mockingbird smiled at me from its perch, our new, still-intact mailbox. White caught my eye. I turned to see what it was and surveyed a dewy mess. Toilet paper mummified our oak trees and flannel bush. It draped the ceanothus Dad had planted along our hillside and a wet glob of it crapped from a branch, splattering whiteness across the soil. I snatched the newspaper, looked up, and saw an epithet written across our driveway. Its letters were made of something white, maybe sugar.

Skirting the words, I sprinted to our front door, threw it open, and screamed, “Dad!”

Dad appeared in ladies’ sweats. He prefers the variety of colors they come in. Wearing a worried look, he asked, “Is the mailbox still there?”

“Yeah but…just come look.”

Dad followed me to the bottom of our hill. He surveyed our yard. “Shit,” he said.

I pointed behind us, at the driveway. “Look.”

Colorless letters spelled EVIL BITCH. Beneath the accusation was a sugary star held by a sugary circle.

Through his angry beard, Dad asked, “Who do you think did this?”

“The bitch with the talking car.”

Ignoring my profanity, Dad said, “Go the garage. Get the push broom and clean this stuff up. Also, please bring me my chainsaw.”

I cleaned trees and shrubs and swept EVIL BITCH away while Dad found solace in cutting things up.

//

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Photo by Geoff Cordner

I hated the gym but I was in it anyways. The metal bleachers felt cold against my pompis. Down below, on the court, a boy dribbled a ball. Threw it.

He was not interesting.

Jenni was. I was focused on her.

Jenni was lighter skinned than me but definitely not White. She was sitting in the bleachers facing ours, and she practically glowed.

All of the social rejects hanging out in the gym were there for her.

We were TEAM JENNI.

Word on the street, and by street I mean our abusive-as-fuck campus, was that Jenni was going to discipline Karen. The bitch needed to be checked since she’d violated an important rule: Karen had shit-talked a chola. A Chicano, Freddy, had inspired the vendetta. Both Jenni and Karen had the hots for him, but Karen believed he belonged to her. She told everybody so. She also told everyone that Freddy deserved a classy girl, not a trashy whore like Jenni.

Now, because of her mouth, Karen might die.

I heard through the grapevine that to catch the violence, I should keep an eye on Jenni at lunchtime. After wolfing down tuna sandwiches, my friends and I spotted and tailed Jenni. She led us to the gym and we played it cool. Nobody wanted to tip off to the administration that an act of guerilla barbering was about to take place. It excited me that the fight was going to involve hair and apparently Jenni had told someone who had told someone who had told a tall Mexican girl named Summer that Karen was going to get jumped. During the attack, Jenni would use scissors and abscond with Karen’s dirty blonde copete.

I couldn’t wait for the de-banging, the hacking of a non-consensual mullet, and the promise of Karen’s assault gave me hope: squadrons of Karens and Matts tormented so many of us at Orcutt Junior High and for once, the meek might inherit the campus.

Amidst a sea of White teachers, a solitary Chicano taught science. White girls gossiped that because of his brownness, one should avoid being alone with him, he probably raped. And while shit-talking dark-skinned people was a popular campus pastime, woe unto those who talked shit in the righteous direction.

“Who do you think you are?” my White history teacher scrawled beside the F she wrote on an essay I’d done for homework. “How dare you write these things about Manifest Destiny?! Manifest Destiny is a sacred doctrine! Its why we’re here. What do you suggest White people do? Move? There are too many of us! Your suggestions are very offensive and unrealistic!”

Our male faculty were worse. They watched and did nothing when White boys lunged, pointed, and hissed the n-word at my beautifully fat lips. Sneering at my mustache, boys groaned, Ew. Yuck! The worst of them jammed their hands between my legs, trying to rape me with fingers lubed by chip grease. They didn’t hide their violence, it went down al fresco, and about once a week, marauders crept up behind me, grabbed my hem, and yanked my skirts up past my ribs.

One little gang turned my torture into a two-for-one. On their way toward me, they slammed a skinny Mexican boy against the wall, shoved their backpacks at him and turned on me. Our audience froze. Once I was scrambling to cover my private parts, the predators sauntered back to the Mexican. After snatching back their stuff, the burliest one drawled, “Thanks, faggot.”

My witness showed racial solidarity: he ratted my attackers out to our vice principal. Our vice principal told him nothing could be done about my constant degradation but he was lying, something could be done. Lore I hadn’t learned in school, lore I’d learned from books with bandits on the covers, pointed the way. These books belonged to Dad, they lived on our living room’s bookshelf, and they clued me into stuff my White history teacher pretended hadn’t happened. Gringos had been pushing Mexicans to the edge since they first trudged into California. Desperation turned us into desperados and after they laid claim to our land, money, and bodies, they left us a single valuable to defend: our reputations.

//

From the moment I first saw her shuffle across our playground, I’d admired Jenni’s walk. She moved pussy first, her clit was a bloodhound’s nose and Jenni dressed like my favorite gang-affiliated prima, la Green Eyes. Stretchy black jeans so tight her camel toe hung like lop rabbit ears. Nike Cortez. A black sweatshirt. Si hacía frío, a Raiders jacket cocooned her from neck to knees. La Jenni ratted and teased her locks identical to Green Eyes and her cynical baby face peered out through un huipil grandote de tehuana. Instead of lace and linen, the huipil’s ingredients were Chicana hairs shellacked into place by Aqua Net.

(If you don’t know what un huipil grande de tehuana is, picture a big-ass crunchy sunflower framing a güerita’s face. That was Jenni’s hairstyle. I worshipped it. It is possible to worship hair, especially when it communicates aristocracy and reaches for the gods.)

Karen was watching Freddy play basketball. Jenni was watching Karen. She sat a few yards away from her, glaring at her hair. Karen felt Jenni’s eyes and turned around. When she turned back, she was wearing a fuchi face. Once her eyes landed on Freddy, her cara de fuchi vanished. Adoration replaced it.

Jenni looked at her audience, at all of us gathered in the opposing bleachers. Slowly, she tugged her jacket’s zipper down. By their handle, she pulled out a pair of large shears, displaying them so that they glinted. The spectacle stoked our bloodthirst. I trembled. I was on the verge on making pipí in my bicycle shorts. Anticipatory states often make me wet myself a touch.

Cluelessly, Karen stood. She smoothed her sweater. She adjusted her socks. She walked. Her best friend, Sarah, followed her. After they disappeared into the courtside restroom, Jenni smiled. She stood. An entourage of girls followed her. Tracing Karen’s path, they entered the restroom. Those of us there for the reckoning held our breaths. We feared tipping off grown-ups. This desire forced us to play it cool. My sense sharpened. De repente, a scream like a demon giving birth to a two-headed Medusa interrupted the basketball game.

Most of the boys playing froze. Freddy kept dribbling.

Jenni emerged. A worried crease lined her forehead. With her hands in her pockets, she scurried along the court’s edge and flew out of the gym. Sarah tore through the restroom’s doorway, flailing onto the court. She grabbed the teacher refereeing the game by his shirtsleeve and shouted into his ear. His eyes widened and he shoved his whistle between his non-lips, blowing and blowing and blowing.

Euphoria filled me.

We had a hero.

//

During mi niñez bilingüe, two severed heads enthralled me.

The first was female. I met it in Anaheim.

For vacation, Dad drove us to Disneyland and at the Haunted Mansion, we boarded Doom Buggies that spun us around a house filled with ghosts like in the novel Pedro Páramo. My favorite specter was nothing from the neck down. From the neck up, she was Madame Leota, a pretty dead clairvoyant. Her head floated in a crystal ball at the center of a round table, overseeing a séance, and Leota’s makeup was spectacular. I wondered who did it. She had no hands.

The second head was actually several heads which had, and had not, belonged to Joaquín Murrieta. I’d learned about him, a Mexican bandit, from those books I mentioned earlier and when I mentioned my admiration for Murrieta to Dad, Dad filled me in on a chunk of the desperado’s tale that the books omitted: Murrieta’s executioners had decapitated him so that they could collect the high bounty that the state of California offered for his capture. Afterwards, some enterprising gabacho tossed his head in a jar, pickled it, and charged people a buck to see it.

According to certain audience members, the head in the jar wasn’t Murrieta’s. Vigilantes decapitated the wrong Mexican but really, aren’t all Mexicans the same? Aren’t we all bandits?

I’m a bandit.

The Mexican boy who watched my attack was a bandit.

Mom was a bandit.

Dad was a bandit.

My brother was a bandit.

My sister was a bandit.

Jenni was a bandit.

And because of that, the cops came and took her away. La copetóna never came back.

I would’ve paid at least a dollar to ogle her pickled piece of Karen.

//

The afternoon of the chopping, Karen didn’t ride the bus home.

The talking car came and got her.

The bus felt different without her.

Lighter.

The kids who typically did the torturing, the White boys who spit on girls and called us hairy cunts, the White girls who sneered at those of us with “hard to pronounce names,” acted a bit more reserved. Timidity had replaced viciousness.

I sat up straight in my seat, smiling, enjoying my ride home.

“This is how school should feel,” I thought to myself.

The bus sped along Clark Avenue, across the 101 Freeway, and up a slight grade. I looked out the window, toward the Solomon Hills. Dad liked talking about them. In 1901, William Warren Orcutt had struck oil there but that detail didn’t excite Dad. What did was the legend of Salomón Pico, cousin of California’s last Mexican governor, Pío Pico.

Gringos killed Pico’s wife, so to avenge her, Pico killed gringos. He ambushed travelers along the windy camino real, robbing them, dumping their corpses wherever he wanted to. Legend had it that he collected his victims’ ears and my mind’s eye conjured Pico resting in the shade of an erotic oak, humming to himself, petting his shriveled trophies, one or two still tufted with blood-matted blond hair.

The bus pulled up to my stop.

I disembarked Karenlessly.

I walked home Karenfree.

 

 

Myriam Gurba is a writer, podcaster and artist who lives in Long Beach, California. Her most recent book, the true crime memoir Mean, was a New York Times editors’ choice. Publishers Weekly describes her as a “literary voice like none other.” Gurba co-hosts the AskBiGrlz advice podcast with cartoonist, and fellow biracialist, MariNaomi. Her collage and digital artwork has been shown in museums, galleries, and community centers. Follow her on Twitter.

Copyright: © 2019 Myriam Gurba. 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/.

Postcard Series:

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
Reviews

Inland Shift: Towards a Radical Intercommunalism in the Inland Empire

J.T. Roane

During a speech delivered at Boston College on November 18, 1970 Huey P. Newton extended Marxist-Leninist material dialecticism as a mode of theoretical and practical inquiry through his critical neologism “intercommunalism.” Describing two variants of intercommunalism, one reactionary and the other revolutionary, Newton premised his analytic on an understanding that American empire had eclipsed the nation-colony model of European imperial integration in a similar fashion to the ways that system eclipsed the “primitive empire” Romans built within the world as they conceived it in the Classical period of the West. “North America,” he argued had been “transformed at the hands of the ruling circle from a nation to an empire,” changing “the whole composition of the world.” As a result, the elite of the United States “necessarily control[led] the whole world either directly or indirectly.” Intercommunalism, in its reactionary variant, created a world defined by the dislocation of finance, production, and consumption across increasingly dispersed and mediated geographic system of resource-siphoning in which automation would give way to “cybernation [and] probably to technocracy.” The primary effect of reactionary intercommunalism, according to Newton, was the creation of a permanent class of expendable people the world over with no access to the benefits of technological transformation and who were forced to bear the worst effects of global integration.1

In contrast to reactionary intercommunalism, Newton proposed and adopted “revolutionary intercommunalism.” As a result of “nations hav[ing] been transformed into [the] communities of the world,” revolutionary organizers could also make it a “time when the people seize[d] the means of production and distribute[d] the wealth and the technology in an egalitarian way to the many communities of the world.” Newton’s interpretation of the revolutionary variant of intercommunalism justified the shift of the Black Panther Party toward its Survival Programs. Without the basics of subsistence in food and healthcare and without critical education, there would be no ability to survive, let alone to throw off the technocratic elite, he reasoned. Revolutionary intercommunalists could shut down the draining of collective resources to line the pockets of Empire’s elites. Using the capacity of the new technological age, which had taken a person to the moon but which refused to end hunger and depravation, revolutionary intercommunalists, including the Panthers, could create a global sense of the world based not on exploitation but rather on the power to extend human happiness and wellbeing equitably.2

These key turns in Newton’s thought, his analysis of both the reactionary and revolutionary versions of intercommunalism, as well as the Black Panther’s organizational praxis responding to these novel theorizations, remain important theoretical and practical points in challenging globalization—the hegemonic financial and cultural integration of the earth that has continued since the era of Newton’s theorization. This, our age of the orange autocrat in the U.S. and of multiple neo-fascist regimes around the world, is defined by unprecedented technocratic monopoly and the devastating expansion of the permanently jobless, homeless, and nationless who can make no claim to the advances associated with globalization and who face the brunt of the negative effects of this order. Extending Newton’s concept, we currently face the rise of what I call reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism—a variant in which the façade of integration accompanying multicultural neoliberalism has given way to the explicit embrace of autocracy in and through technological, economic, and political integration. Across disparate human geographies a technocratic elite—ranging from logistics capital to social media tycoons—dictate the lives of ordinary people, deciding if they work, live, or die and under what conditions.

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Basil D, Soufi, “Aerial view of the Inland Empire overlooking San Bernardino and Rialto, California,” Courtesy of Soufi via Creative Commons

Juan D. De Lara’s important new book Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California (UC Press, 2018), garners for readers analytic purchase not only on the dynamics of the technologically integrated commodity chains shaping contemporary reactionary, reactionary intercommunalism, but also on the potential for labor organizing and politics to extend the practice of Newton’s revolutionary intercommunalism. One of the powerful aspects of De Lara’s study is that, like Clyde Woods’ work in the context of the Mississippi Delta, he takes the region as his point of analysis. Foremost, as De Lara argues, the region provides a frame through which to analyze the ways that “[c]reative destruction is…woven into the fabric of capitalist development” and provides “solution to the devaluation of fixed capital by reconfiguring spatial-temporal relationships to create new investment options.” Emerging from a “speculative growth regime” the Inland Empire as a distribution center for global commodities emerged as corporate boosters and politicians beginning in the 1980s justified the expenditure of collective resources to extend Southern California’s port, warehouse, and distribution infrastructures into the region encompassing cities east of Los Angeles like Riverside, San Bernardino, and Ontario. As De Lara demonstrates, these changes were sold to ordinary people as the tide that would lift all boats, as the collective potential for prospering after the devastation of the region’s rapid deindustrialization in competition with emerging production centers around the world. Elites reasoned that the expenditures, as well as the environmental-health threats related to concentrated diesel pollution, would be worth the enhancement of the region’s position in the mounting competition for increased commodity imports. They argued that these developments would improve the lives of the region’s ordinary residents by providing them with stable incomes and concomitantly with access to the housing market as owners. In effect, however, these processes further entrenched vulnerability in communities exposed to global market fluctuations. Indeed, the cost of speculatively-growing Southern California ports and the Inland Empire distribution networks to make them competitive with others around the nation, was the extension of tedious and poorly compensated labor under conditions of often cyborg-like surveillance, as well as environmental degradation, and racial violence.

As it chronicles the rise of a regional elite, De Lara’s work holds onto material dialecticism, introducing points of possibility for the subversion of regional logistics hegemony through the narratives of predominantly Latinx warehouse workers. In particular, he includes, along with his analysis of the dominant social-spatial features of the Inland Empire, the “counter-mappings” of workers, or the “collective stories provid[ing] insight into how people make sense of the world” which are also the “seeds of opposition to dominant systems.” Importantly, De Lara credits ordinary people with the ability to generate theoretical and cartographic insights useful in analyzing and thwarting this reviling and destructive system. In chapter five, for example, De Lara shows the ways that ordinary Latinx warehouse workers, “José,” “Angelica,” and “Marta” make sense of vulnerability within the wider geography of the region. He connects their analysis with their attempts to defy the imposition of a system of technologically enhanced management in which workers are wired to track productivity (or the lack thereof) as part of the wider coordination of production, commodity importation, warehousing, and distribution for corporations like Walmart. De Lara places these everyday forms of analysis and resistance on a continuum with the efforts of organizations to combat vulnerability. For example, these mappings helped to drive the inroads made by unions to end temporary work and also undergirded efforts to halt raids, detentions, and deportations undermining local Latinx communities. The rudimentary coordinates of worker’s alternative vistas on the matters of labor, place, and politics, served as the substrate out of which activist consciousness emerged. Union and community organizers drew together people by highlighting their shared narratives and common geographic analyses.

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De Lara’s book provides an excellent addition to the growing work in critical human geography. It would be particularly effective if paired with important works of regional analysis and Marxist geography including Clyde Woods’ work and Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. These works, taken together, help us to gain purchase on the development of the geographies of gendered racial capitalism in state and global capital formations and also to take stock of resistance. These works also remind us of the vital place of what Newton understood as “the left of the proletariat.” In a world, increasingly defined by reactionary global integration, it is only the everyday and organized subversions on the part of ordinary people that can dislodge the tyranny of technocracy, giving expression to a world free of borders wherein the advances in technological capacity can be distributed to address crises such as the environmental catastrophe, in order to insure our collective wellbeing rather than our collective destruction. As De Lara’s work effectively illustrates, we must recover the radical potential of Newton’s analysis, forwarding it into the nascent order. We must also organize shoulder to shoulder with the potentially revolutionary intercommunalists across the world if we are to survive the terrifying juncture of environmental destruction, technocratic monopoly, and global integration. The people of the Inland Empire have led the way in demonstrating the place of ordinary people can incapacitate technocratic power and fighting fascism, the political analog of an economy based in technocratic monopoly.

May the revolutionary intercommunalists of the world unite!

Notes

1 Huey P. Newton, “Speech Delivered at Boston College: November 18, 1970, To Die for the People, ed. Toni Morrison, (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2009): 20-38.

2 ibid.

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of African and African American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript under contract with NYU Press titled, “Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia.” He serves as co-senior editor for Black Perspectives, the digital platform of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).

Copyright: © 2019 J.T. Roane. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Articles

From Resourceful to Illegal

Becky Nicolaides

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

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

chart

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

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

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

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

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

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


1920s: Working-class roots

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

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

South Gate Aerial

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

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

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

wattshome

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

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

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

 


1940s: Informal Housing as Patriotic Duty

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

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

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

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

 

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

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


1980s: Immigrant Suburbia and the Criminalization of Informal Housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garage conversion. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Garage conversion. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Occupied RV. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Occupied RV. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

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

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

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

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

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


Moving Toward Solutions

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

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

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

Occupied Garden Shed. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

Occupied Garden Shed. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Pacheco Bell.

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Ibid., chapter 1.

[8] Ibid., 42-43.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[17] Los Angeles Times, 2 September 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[28] South Gate Press, 20 June 1984.

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

[30] Los Angeles Times, 8 September 1983.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[42] Los Angeles Times, 27 November 2018.

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

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

Copyright: © 2019 Becky Nicolaides. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

 

 

 

Excerpts

Protesting Displacement and the Right to the City

Photo Credit: John Urquiza/Sin Turistas.

Jan Lin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friends of Highland Park vs. the Highland Park Transit Village

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

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

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

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

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


Eviction Order and Rent Strike at Marmion Royal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Copyright: © 2019 Jan Lin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Articles

Last Stands

Tony Platt

1 CUSTERS LAST STAND

Remembering to Forget

One day in 2017, a woman taking a yoga class at a senior center in Oakland noticed a large painting on the wall that depicted “Custer’s Last Stand.” She found it offensive and racist, and fired off emails to city officials asking for it to be removed.

In response to this complaint, Jennifer King, director of the Downtown Oakland Senior Center, convened a public forum on 17 January 2018 to discuss the issue. A panel, of which I was a member, presented a variety of viewpoints. Ms. King saw Custer getting his comeuppance, and Toby McLeod of Sacred Land Film Project thought the artist had demonstrated some sympathy to the Native point of view. Roberto Bedoya, Oakland’s manager of Cultural Affairs, noted that local government has a commitment to make sure that public buildings represent the city’s cultural diversity and legacy of struggles for social justice. Tony Gonzales from the American Indian Movement and Corrina Gould (Chochenyo Ohlone) made the case that the painting glorifies Custer and should be removed, a position with which most people in the audience concurred.

I argued that people who work at and use the Senior Center should determine what to do about the painting, but the information I presented made clear that I personally would not want to look up from a downward-facing dog to see a glorified image of Custer standing on higher ground in a dazzling light beneath the U.S. flag, his receding hair miraculously luxuriant.

There has been much debate in recent years about what to do with memorials to the Confederacy in the South, with the legacies of slaveholders whose fortunes launched Ivy League universities in the East, and with the statues of great men who did great harm. Efforts are also under way to do something about the gender imbalance in the sparse public representation of women. Of some 5,200 statues in the United States depicting historical figures, fewer than 400 are women. Only five public statues in New York honor women.[1]

There is no need to travel very far to engage these issues. We have plenty of cultural skeletons in our own backyard, as California’s official narratives typically represent the state as superior to the South with its history of slavery, conveniently sanitizing the state’s own blood-drenched origins in conquest and war. Academic historians have documented in relentless and scrupulous detail that what was done to Native peoples in California constitute genocide. Yet the guardians of our public history prefer upbeat stories that emphasize a narrative of progress and civilization.[2] How else to explain the glaring absence of memorials, plaques, ceremonies, rituals, days of mourning, elementary and high school textbooks, and sites of memory to remind us how the past bleeds into the present?

Unlike universities such as Princeton, Yale, and Georgetown that are trying to come to terms with the paradox of enlightened knowledge coexisting with the trade in enslaved Africans, the University of California has not yet examined its own complicity in institutionalized racism, such as how Berkeley’s Anthropology department rose to international prominence by promoting the enthusiastic grab of thousands of Native graves in order to accumulate artifacts and human remains for display and science.[3]

The Custer painting is one of several current controversies about historical amnesia taking place in California. In San Francisco, organizations led by Native American groups lobbied the Arts and Historical Preservation Commissions to remove a section of the “Early Days” memorial in Civic Center that depicts a vaquero and missionary standing over an almost naked Indian, presumably offering to uplift him into a civilization that almost liquidated his people.

For years, activists at Stanford have been urging the university to erase the name of Father Junipero Serra from buildings, given his role as a key architect of a Mission system that laid the foundations of California’s genocide. Down south at Long Beach State University, the descendants of the Tongva people who lived here from time immemorial are deeply offended by the campus’ mythic statue of Prospector Pete, a celebration of manly conquest.[4]

Up the coast in the town of Arcata, activists petitioned the city council to remove a statue of President McKinley from the public square, and a marker outside the historic Jacoby building constructed in 1857. They object to McKinley as a civic icon, given his racial politics and war against the Philippines that marked the rise of American imperialism.

A similar monument to Admiral Dewey in San Francisco’s Union Square glorifies war and expansionism in a city with a reputation for antiwar activism.

 

The Jacoby plaque in Arcata commemorated a building that “served periodically as a refuge in time of Indian troubles,” a refuge for Gold Rush settlers and speculators. This seemingly neutral statement makes a mockery of genocide by turning victims into perpetrators. It perpetuates the fable that the good citizens of the region did not participate in, support, or fund military campaigns that reduced once thriving tribal communities to one thirtieth of their population by the end of the nineteenth century; or that well into the twentieth century they had nothing to do with the commerce in Native women, children, artifacts, and human bones that played a significant role in the economic development of northwest California.

In Berkeley, a campaign is under way to change the name of a building in which the law school is housed. In May 2017, Charles Reichmann, a university lecturer, published an opinion in the San Francisco Chronicle that exposed John Henry Boalt, after whom Boalt Hall is named, as a “virulently racist” proponent of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, who was “instrumental in catalyzing California opinion in support of this law.”[5] Berkeley’s new law school dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, appointed a committee to explore how the name might be changed, and how to juggle the competing demands of Chinese-American law students, academics from China, anti-racism activists, conservative alumni who identify themselves as “Boalties,” and university lawyers worried about the fine print of a bequest.

What these examples have in common, aside from a shared racial narrative about civilization and savagery, is that many memorials were created around the same time: “Custer’s Last Stand” was painted in 1883, “Early Days” erected in 1894, the Dewey monument in 1903, the McKinley statue in 1906, and Boalt Hall named in 1911. There are exceptions to this timeline: Long Beach State branded Prospector Pete in 1949, and the Arcata plaque was installed in 1963, testimony to the staying power of imagery that was popularized in nineteenth century tropes about hardy settlers and “Indian troubles.”

The destruction of Native communities was well known and publicized in the second half of the nineteenth century. Reformers spoke out against the “sin” of the “brutal treatment of the California tribes,” and lamented the uncivilized behavior of the civilizers. “Never before in history,” wrote a popular journalist in the early 1870s, “has a people been swept away with such terrible swiftness, or appalled into utter and whispering silence forever and forever.”[6] But by the early twentieth century, as direct experience of the horrors of genocide faded from public memory and as the state looked for an origins story more suitably heroic, agents of genocide were remade into founding fathers.

The production of the state’s revisionist history was a popular enterprise, incorporated into grandly produced “theatres of memory,” such as world fairs and local spectacles, into travel books, memoirs, adventure stories, textbooks, and magazines that exported the California Story around the country, long before Hollywood entered the picture.[7]

The creation of a public narrative of the past both excused and legitimated racist images of Native peoples, making it easier for future generations to sleep untroubled and evade a reckoning with the region’s “Early Days.” The logic of late nineteenth and early twentieth century scientific racism was central to framing the attempted extermination of hundreds of thousands of people as a natural rather than social history, and as a process of inevitable erosion and decline rather than the result of human intervention and aggression.

By the early twentieth century, as direct experience of the horrors of genocide faded from public memory and as the state looked for an origins story more suitably heroic, agents of genocide were remade into founding fathers.

The California Story imagined Native peoples as a “disappearing race,” predestined to extinction as a result of their own biological inferiority, the survivors characterized as child-like and in need of the firm hand of civilizing institutions, such as the vaquero and priest in the San Francisco tableau. Literary images of California Indians generally emphasized the passivity of victims, thus implying complicity in their own demise (reminiscent of 1950s depictions of Jews as sheep being too easily led to their slaughter during the Holocaust), despite a long history of resistance, from guerilla warfare during the Gold Rush, to young men and women in boarding schools plotting revolts, to political organizing against the looting of graves.

The effectiveness of this remaking of history meant that by the 1930s a popular book could relegate the ruin of California’s Native peoples to a footnote. As late as 1984, an elementary school text transformed the bloody horrors of the 1850s into a mild case of culture conflict: “The people who came to look for gold and to settle in California did not understand the Indians. They made fun of the way the Indians dressed and acted.”[8]

The upbeat version of the California Story that turned profound injustices into a narrative of Progress served to erect a cultural firewall between the bloody past and present, thus numbing many generations of schoolchildren to our sorrowful history.


Civilization and Barbarism

“Custer’s Last Stand” was a national story that resonated in California as both a vindication of expansionism and a warning against the dangers of barbarism. The painting that hangs in Oakland’s senior center evokes a battle scene in 1876 in which General George Armstrong Custer died along with some 263 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn, Montana. You might reasonably think that the term “Last Stand” refers to the resistance of Plains Indians to the U.S. Army’s onslaught before, as Philip Deloria observes: “a mechanized, train-riding, machine-gunning military rapidly subdued native people, forcing them to reservations.”[9]

Perversely, the “Last Stand” refers to Custer’s role in his final battle. Custer was a military man all his short life (1839-1876). He graduated from West Point and fought in the Civil War. After that war was over, he fought Indians. He died at war. Given how well his name is known (though inevitably paired with “Last Stand”), you might also think that he was an unblemished military leader who had a bit of bad luck at Little Big Horn, or that he was a warrior of extraordinary courage—the last one standing in the battle. Historical evidence suggests neither is true.

Today, Custer’s reputation is mixed, with one military historian characterizing him as a “gallant idiot.” In the 1860s, in large part due to his knack for self-promotion through published articles and a book (My Life on the Plains), and for attracting a favorable press, the youngest divisional commander in the Cavalry Corps became known as “The Boy General with the Golden Locks.” As historian Richard Slotkin observes, Custer “took direct charge of the making of his own public persona.”[10]

After the Civil War, Custer’s career was up and down.

In 1867, during the Kansas-Colorado campaign, he ordered deserters shot without trial and left his post without permission, for which he was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the military without pay. In 1868 he returned from exile to defeat the Southern Cheyenne at the Washita, and was rumored to have encouraged his soldiers to rape women captives.[11]

The upbeat version of the California Story that turned profound injustices into a narrative of Progress served to erect a cultural firewall between the bloody past and present, thus numbing many generations of schoolchildren to our sorrowful history.

If, as the Sioux chief Sitting Bull put it, “the love of possessions is a disease among them,” Custer was somebody who enthusiastically spread the virus. In violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, signed by the Sioux and U.S. government, Custer led an expedition looking for gold into the Black Hills of Dakota in 1874. He regarded Indians as a once “noble race” who had degenerated and were doomed to extinction: “The Indian cannot be himself and be civilized: he fades away and dies.”[12]

In 1876, as a sort of poetic justice, Custer blundered into the largest gathering of Plains Indians fighters ever assembled in central Montana. With the story of the “Last Stand,” he became the celebrity in death that he never fully achieved while he was alive.[13]

We know from military and Native histories that the term is not an accurate description of what took place at Little Big Horn. The battle was chaotic and overwhelming, with Custer and his men swept away quickly in a rout. The actual fighting took about “as long as it takes a hungry man to eat a meal,” according to one account. There was no heroic Last Stand at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, the much less romantic name that Native fighters used. Like war in general, it was nasty and brutal, with the defeated fleeing in panic. According to an oral history with Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne fighter, the battle “looked like thousands of dogs might look if all of them were mixed together in a fight.” A day or so later, Custer and his men were found strewn about in the stifling heat, naked and torn apart, their bodies covered in flies and swollen with gas.[14]

So how did a leader associated with one of the nation’s worst military defeats become a national hero? According to Slotkin, the celebration of the United States centennial in Philadelphia on 4 July 1876, nine days after the battle of Little Big Horn, provided an opportunity to remake Custer’s humiliating death into a “redemptive sacrifice” on behalf of the nation’s quest to “bring light, law, liberty, Christianity, and commerce to the savage places of the earth.” The myth of “Custer’s Last Stand” became a cultural icon, popularized in the media as a stand-in for the need to overcome anxieties about rebellions from below, whether Indian tribes fighting back, or a labor movement demanding workers’ rights, or a capitalist civilization threatened by barbarian immigrants.[15]

Some credit for the popularity of the Custer myth can also be given to his wife’s relentless publicity campaign that persisted for fifty-seven years after his death, similar to the role played by Beatrice Patton who appointed herself the guardian of the official memory of another self-promoting general, George Patton, after his death at the end of World War II.[16] Until 1991, when Native activists forced Congress to make changes, the National Park Service glorified a fictional Custer by turning the Custer Battlefield National Monument into a shrine that elevated him above the tribes that defeated him.[17]

Custer, 1876

Custer, 1876

The making of the myth of the Last Stand was, like the making of the California Story, a massive literary and artistic production. In “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” written a couple of weeks after the general’s death, Walt Whitman represented him as a Christ-like figure who gave his life in the “fatal environment” of the “Indian ambuscade,” and left an example of “fighting to the last in sternest heroism,” at his “most glorious in defeat.”[18]

It is this image of Custer in the mold of Daniel Boone that stars in the painting in Oakland. The building in which it hangs was constructed in 1927 for the Veterans’ Administration, and the painting was donated in the 1930s as a gift in honor of veterans of the Spanish-American War. For years the city has owned the Veterans’ Memorial Building that is now primarily used as a center for seniors, though four veterans’ organizations still retain a small presence.[19]

The painting is dated 1883 and signed “A.D. Cooper.” Astley David Middleton Cooper was born in St. Louis in 1856 and came of age during the Civil War. He moved to the Bay Area in 1870 when the military phase of the genocide against California tribes was taking place, where he made a living as an artist churning out as many as one thousand paintings until his death in 1924. He specialized in romantic images of an imagined Native past, as well as cheesy nudes. His “Last Stand” was part of a booming cottage industry that made the myth seem like real history to millions of people and helped to frame the West as the land of last stands. Even as killing expeditions, enslavement of women, cultural annihilation, and looting of thousands of graves took place around him in California, he chose to conjure up exotic, faraway savages as subjects for his paintings.

San Jose likes to claim Cooper as one of their preeminent celebrities and “a legendary local figure,” but in reality he was, according to art historian Annie Ronan, a relatively minor figure in American art. Today, in comparison with peers such as Frederic Remington and C.R. Russell, Cooper’s work has little commercial value.[20]

Cooper was also a flimflam artist and, like Custer, embellished his public reputation. He said that at the age of twelve he had learned his trade in Paris, “where he studied under the best masters,” that he had taken medical courses in anatomy, that he had lived with the Lakota, that he traveled with Custer, and so on. [21] In fact, there is no evidence for any of these claims or that he had any direct experiences living or working with Native peoples.

Moreover, the painting of “Custer’s Last Stand” has little resemblance to the real Custer, and there is a good possibility that Cooper was not even its artist. Custer liked to model his appearance—buckskins included—on William Cody. Popularly known as Buffalo Bill, Cody was a former military scout who made his name in Wild West performances. After Custer’s death, Cody returned the compliment and performed as a Custer lookalike.[22] The Custer in “Custer’s Last Stand” looks less like the real Custer, with his thinning and graying hair, and more like Buffalo Bill performing “The Boy General with the Golden Locks.”

Cooper usually signed his work as “A.D.M. Cooper.” He also encouraged his apprentices to copy his paintings and sign his name. Given that “Custer’s Last Stand” is signed “A.D. Cooper” and, according to Ronan, is “more cartoonish and compositionally different” than Cooper’s other pieces, the work that hangs in the Oakland senior center is likely a copy, and should be more accurately titled, Buffalo Bill Performing Custer’s Last Stand, attributed to A.D.M. Cooper.[23]


To Be Determined

The celebration of efforts to pacify and assimilate Native tribes—as evoked in the art of “Custer’s Last Stand” and the memorial to “Early Days”—set a standard for other chapters in the California Story’s racial narrative: making an advocate of the ethnic cleansing of Chinese immigrants into a founding father of a law school; and honoring the men who subjugated the Philippines with statues in city centers. As Carey McWilliams observed, to understand “race attitudes” in the United States, “one must begin at the beginning,” starting with racism against Native peoples as the “point of departure.”[24]

Recent campaigns to remove or replace images, memorials, and statues that glorify conquest or erase struggles for social justice have had mixed results. Arcata’s city council quickly moved to remove the plaque that identified a building as a refuge from “Indian troubles.” Its effort to take down the McKinley statue from the town’s plaza, however, met national opposition and a vigorous local campaign to preserve the landmark. A ballot initiative in November may decide this issue, but the town’s deep political divide will endure. Meanwhile, Admiral Dewey still towers over San Francisco’s Union Square.[25]

Despite legal efforts by a group opposed to “destroying a part of history,” as dawn broke on 14 September, city workers hauled away the 2,000-pound “Early Days” statue from San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza. Ohlone tribal leaders witnessed this victory. Similarly, Stanford University will soon expunge Junipero Serra’s name from its buildings, and Prospector Pete will no longer “strike the gold of education” at Long Beach State University.[26]

At Berkeley, a committee appointed by the dean of the law school called for dishonoring the nineteenth century lawyer who once made the case that “the Chinaman… excites in us, or at least in most of us, an unconquerable repulsion.” If the committee’s recommendations prevail, the law school building will no longer be named Boalt Hall, after a man whose “principal public legacy is one of racism and bigotry.”[27]

These struggles over history and memory are not easily resolved. The Boalt committee at Berkeley, a university known globally as a bastion of liberal thought and activism, surveyed some 2,000 members of the “law school community” about how the law school building should be named. As many as one-third of respondents wanted no change in the status quo, while another eleven percent argued that the Boalt name should remain in honor of John Boalt’s wife who made the bequest after her husband’s death. Less than fifty percent of respondents agreed with the committee’s findings. Some eighteen months after Charles Reichmann published his essay exposing John Boalt’s unvarnished racism, we have not yet reached the more difficult second stage of the struggle: How and what to rename the building?

Meanwhile, as of October 2018, Custer still makes his Last Stand in Oakland’s senior center.

I welcome the current debates about how we name the places in which we live, work, and go to school, a process that until now has never been subject to democratic governance. It takes concerted and sometimes lengthy efforts to remove symbols of racism and superiority from public squares and buildings. Still ahead is the more difficult and messy challenge of how to publicly do justice to the tragic past, represent today’s profound inequalities and injustices, and recognize the social movements and activists who have tried and continue to try to make the United States, in the words of Langston Hughes, into “the land that has never been yet.” These challenges remain to be determined, as we must too.

 0218_Docket_Name TBD.jpg

Notes

[1] Maya Salam, “America’s Public-Statue Gender Gap,” The New York Times, international edition, 15 August 2018.

[2] Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[3] “Princeton History Project: History and Slavery,” https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/princeton-and-slavery-holding-the-center; “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” http://www.yaleslavery.org/YSA.pdf; “Georgetown University: Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation,” http://slavery.georgetown.edu/; Tony Platt, Grave Matters: Excavating California’s Buried Past (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2011).

[4] Nanette Asimov, “Stanford Renaming Serra Sites Over Treatment of Tribes,” San Francisco Chronicle (16 September 2018); Tony Platt, “Sainthood and Serra: It’s An Insult to Native Americans,” Los Angeles Times, 24 January 2015; Jose A. Del Real, “Divisive College Figure, Prospector Pete Statue Is Set to Be Removed,” The New York Times, 4 October 2018.

[5] Charles Reichmann, “The Case for Renaming Boalt Hall,” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 May 2017.

[6] Barbara A. Davis, Edward S. Curtis: The Life and Times of a Shadow Catcher (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1985), 70; Stephen Powers, Tribes of California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 404.

[7] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London: Verso, 1994).

[8] A.A. Gray, History of California From 1542 (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1934), 338; Durlynn C. Anema et al., California Yesterday and Today (Morristown, New Jersey: Silver Burdett, 1984), 167.

[9] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (Yale University Press, 1998), 104.

[10] Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (Wesleyan University Press, 1986), 7, 385, 409.

[11] Ibid., 402-403.

[12] George Armstrong Custer, “The Red Man” (1858), cited in Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 410.

[13] Deloria, Playing Indian, 104.

[14] Peter Nabokov, ed., Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-2000 (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 110; Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 431.

[15] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 8, 531; William H. Truettner, ed., The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1991), 297.

[16] Tony Platt, Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, From Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), 140-141.

[17] James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: The New Press, 2006), 172; Kenneth E. Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003).

[18] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 10-11.

[19] Personal communication from Jennifer King, Director, Downtown Oakland Senior Center.

[20] Gary Singh, “San Jose’s Most Notorious Painter Exhibits at Cantor Arts Center,” Metro News, 12 August 2015. Evaluation of Cooper’s artistic merit relies on interviews with art historian Annie Ronan, Earlham College, and Emily Godby, “Trilby Goes Naked and Native on the Midway,” in The Trans-Mississippi and International Expositions of 1898-1899: Art, Anthropology, and Popular Culture at the Fin de Siècle, ed. Wendy Jean Katz (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 161-194.

[21] “Trilby’s Artist,” Omaha Daily Bee (16 September 1898).

[22] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 408.

[23] Personal communication with Annie Ronan.

[24] Carey McWilliams, Brothers Under the Skin (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1944), 50, 67.

[25] Kimberly Wear, “McKinley Statue Debate Making the Media Rounds,” North Coast Journal (3 April 2018) Thaddeus Greenson, “Arcata Council Sends McKinley Initiative to Voters,” North Coast Journal (2 July 2018).

[26] Dominic Fracassa, “Disputed Statue Taken Down Before Sunrise,” San Francisco Chronicle (15 September 2018); Nanette Asimov, “Stanford Renaming Sierra Sites Over Treatment of Tribes,” San Francisco Chronicle (16 September 2018); Jose A. Del Real, “Divisive College Figure, Prospector Pete Statue is Set to be Removed.”

[27] Charles Cannon et al., “Report of the Committee on the Use of the Boalt Name,” U.C. Berkeley Law (25 June 2018); Nanette Asimov, “Cal Law School Reconsiders Boalt Name,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 2008.

 

Tony Platt is Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, UC Berkeley, and the author of twelve books, including Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019). Thanks to Kathryn Heard for research assistance; to anonymous reviewer and Cecilia O’Leary for critical feedback, and to Sara Wadford for permission to use her image “To Be Determined,” Photo illustration by ABA Journal/Shutterstock.

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

Articles

African-American Muslims and the LAPD

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Nick Shindo Street

“We don’t want to walk into a kumbaya situation,” said Umar Hakim. The sixteen men and women gathered around a conference table in Inglewood simultaneously nodded in agreement. “We need training,” Hakim said, “because we already know who’s holding the power.”

One of the men at the table was Khalid Shah, a veteran activist and organizer in South L.A.’s African-American Muslim community.

“I wanted to be a police officer at one point,” Shah said as people began recounting stories about encounters with the LAPD. “Then the police killed my friend in the projects.”

He shook his head and his eyes clouded over as he relived the preventable event.

“Why?” he wondered, his pain a bridge between past and present.

The community-development organization that Umar Hakim leads—Intellect, Love and Mercy (ILM) Foundation—convened the group to prepare for an upcoming public forum between African-American Muslims and the LAPD at Masjid Bilal Islamic Center in South Central. The meeting would be the first of its kind in recent memory between local law enforcement officers and the constituencies that Hakim and Shah represent.[1]

At a time when public officials often view both Muslims and African-Americans solely through the lenses of policing and security, the event at Masjid Bilal presented an opportunity for L.A.’s African-American Muslims to challenge and dispute that narrow perspective on their lives. It was also a chance for the community to exert agency over the way that law enforcement officers approach their work in neighborhoods where tensions between residents and the LAPD continue to run high and unresolved.

“I’ve heard so many stories of kids being dehumanized by police,” Khalid Shah stated, eliciting murmurs of recognition from everyone around the table. Shah added that his decades-long history of activism has paradoxically both reinforced and softened his suspicion of the LAPD.[2]

“I’ve also meet good, honest individuals who happen to be wearing the uniform,” he said. “That’s enabled me to balance things. I’ve even invited police to talk to some of the young people we work with.”

At that point Delonte Gholston stepped in to guide the conversation. Gholston and his co-facilitator, Eddie Anderson, were fresh from their work on the Trust Talks, a series of dialogues between residents of Skid Row and the LAPD. Umar Hakim had invited Gholston and Anderson to the meeting in Inglewood to help Hakim’s team prepare to steer the event at Masjid Bilal toward practical outcomes and away from both unproductive rancor and “kumbaya”—a feel-good form of dialogue that avoids hard truths and thus fails to move the conversation forward.[3]

“The name of the game is stories to solutions,” Gholston emphatically declared. “That means knowing your story, knowing what you want and knowing where you want to go with it.”

Anderson jumped in, lean and dapper in contrast to Gholston’s broad-shouldered casualness.

“If they hear our stories,” Anderson added, “they have to see our pain. Teach them how you want to be treated—show the problem and the solution in the same story.”

With that said, Delonte wrote the words “story” and “solution” at the top of two columns on a whiteboard at the head of the table.

“Now stories,” he said to the group. “What are your experiences with the police?”

 

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“If they hear our stories,” Anderson added, “they have to see our pain. Teach them how you want to be treated—show the problem and the solution in the same story.”

Trauma weaved through the narratives that followed like an electrified wire. Abdul Ali, a barber who grew up in Watts, recalled the National Guard occupying his high school in the 1960s. Gerald Thompson, who came of age in South L.A. in the 1970s and 80s, recounted being hassled and even thrown against the side of a car by the police “just because I was hanging out.” Rashida Rogers, a sign-language interpreter, said she had intervened on several occasions when she witnessed LAPD officers “running up on” young people in her neighborhood.

Rogers said, “I have gotten out of my car and said, ‘What’s going on?’” when she observed police intimidating children who were on their way to school.

“The officer was like, ‘They were loud, they were making noise’,” Rogers said. “Holding up children from school because they were being loud! To me, they’re placing fear in them—the same oppressive mentality that they’ve always tried to instill in our young people.”

Gholston’s roster of words and phrases under the “story” heading painted a grim picture that depicted pure trauma, fear, deficient accountability, lack of trust, prejudice, and a preceding command-and-control culture. Stepping to the side of the whiteboard where he had written “solutions,” he asked, “How do we address this?”

“True community policing will only happen when police live in the community,” Eddie Anderson said. “We want officers who live within a five-mile radius of the communities where they work.”

Sadiq Davis, whose reentry story is depicted in the documentary “The Honest Struggle,” remarked, “If officers are friendly, it has a positive effect.” He added, “Some of them are just as afraid as we are.”

Others spoke about the importance of regular psychological evaluations for officers—especially those who have served overseas in the military—as well as the need for greater civilian oversight of the police department. In response to the latter point, Gholston mentioned Measure LL in Oakland, an initiative to create a civilian-run police commission and invest subpoena power in an agency responsible for investigating complaints of police misconduct. The measure won overwhelming support from voters when it appeared on local ballots in 2016, and Gholston believed it could be a model for similar initiatives in L.A.

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“We also have to change our culture,” Khalid Shah interjected. “It’s cool to go to the penitentiary but not cool to become law enforcement officers. We have to become part of the effort to change that.”

Several people around the table looked dubious. Shah shrugged, conceding the complexity of the point.

“I fear the cop; I don’t respect him,” he said, playing Devil’s advocate against his own assertion. “Why would I want to become something I don’t respect?”

As the prep session wrapped up, participants took cellphone pictures of the stories and solutions that Gholston had written on the whiteboard. Umar Hakim hung back as everyone said their goodbyes.

“A lot of the men and women in the room had some deep history,” he said. “A lot of the new organizers make the elders feel like they’re obsolete. I want to build on where they left off.”

Hakim was also looking toward the upcoming meeting with the LAPD as a turning point.

“During the course of CVE”—shorthand for law enforcement initiatives that fall under the heading of countering violent extremism—“a lot of misconceptions are presented about the Muslim community, and particularly the African-American Muslim community,” Hakim said. “I have to use these relationships for more than saying you’re wrong. This is an opportunity to push back on those ideas.”

***

A couple of weeks later, on a warm Wednesday evening, the courtyard of Masjid Bilal—the seminal African-American mosque in Los Angeles[4]—was abuzz with conversation. About a hundred people were divided among ten tables. At each table there were two or three LAPD officers, a volunteer mediator from Days of Dialogue (an organization that facilitates challenging discussions between constituencies in Los Angeles) and about half a dozen members from Masjid Bilal and other predominantly African-American Muslim congregations. Participants from the prep session in Inglewood were thrown in the mix as well.

Andrea Martinez Gonzalez, a mediator from the city’s Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, ended up at a table where a woman from Sub-Saharan Africa was an unexpected ally for a young white LAPD officer who looked defensive and uncomfortable.

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“The African woman created an interesting dynamic at our table,” Gonzalez said. “She was coming from a law-and-order culture that had respect for the police. She was really on the officer’s side!”

Gonzalez said that the other people at the table were polite, but kept bringing up the problems related to police violence that were plaguing their neighborhoods, as well as other communities across the country. In telling his story, the officer said people regularly shouted at him and disrespected him while he was trying to do his job—and that he was frustrated because nothing he tried seemed to diffuse those situations.

“That might change with more of these dialogues,” Gonzalez said later. “There are bad apples in every profession. But a lot of why people are angry is that these young officers are the inheritors of what went on in the old days.”[5]

She added that the officer also complained that news outlets only produce stories about what law enforcement officers do wrong. Still, she was sympathetic to the counter-narrative offered by the community members at her table.

“It’s incredible how much injustice is out there,” she said. “People feel the police are there for anything but protection.”[6]

Gonzalez said that she was optimistic about the prospects for further meetings between the groups represented that night at Masjid Bilal.

“I’m impressed from the first dialogue that this group is really trying to build a bridge to the LAPD,” she said. “The more dialogues they have, the better it is. It’s noble work.”

Officer Jim Buck, a community liaison with the LAPD’s Counter-terrorism and Special Operations Bureau who sat at a different table, echoed Gonzalez’s cautious optimism. He also knew the sources of tension in the room, along with the possibilities for progress, as well as anyone else.

“It’s been a real journey with Umar,” Buck said. “The first time I met him, he didn’t want to have much to do with me. Since then, he and I have had many conversations about policing. We’ve agreed to disagree on many issues, but I consider him a very close friend.”

A decade ago, Buck was serving as a drill instructor at the Los Angeles Police Academy when the then-Chief of Police asked him to become a liaison between the LAPD and communities like Masjid Bilal. The assignment was in some ways an odd fit—Buck described himself as a “conservative Republican.” But his gregarious personality turned out to be the most important asset in his effort to allay fears and build trust among people who were wary of his intentions as a representative of a police counter-terrorism bureau.

“When the community has issues,” Buck said, “they come to us. We’re the most visible form of government. My unit has to understand how Islam expresses itself in Los Angeles. People have invited my unit into their homes, mosques, businesses and schools.”

Referring to the event at Masjid Bilal, he said, “All of this is what we do, how we do it, why we do it. We want to create a resilient community.”

Like Gonzalez, Buck said he saw the event as the first step on a long but hopeful road.

“It gives us a positive starting point,” he said. “But the easy part is getting communities together. The challenge is moving forward.”

Rashida Rogers, the sign-language interpreter who attended the prep session in Inglewood, was mostly pleased with her experience at Masjid Bilal. From her perspective, the key benefit was the opportunity for members of the community to present their story in their own words and to lay the groundwork for future events that could move the conversation in a positive, evolutionary direction.

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“It gives us a positive starting point,” he said. “But the easy part is getting communities together. The challenge is moving forward.”

“Sometimes the story gets twisted,” she said. “This was my first time speaking up and saying that the information you have about us portrayed us wrong. What I heard in response to that at my table makes me hopeful.”

She said it was the officers’ apparent willingness not just to hear, but to really accept what she was saying that left her optimistic.

“If people can change the condition of their hearts,” she concluded, “who am I to think that change can’t happen?”

A few weeks after the meeting at Masjid Bilal, Umar Hakim was savoring success.

“People feel like an opening was made,” he said. “It broke a lot of ice in our own community and showed us that we can address our problems in a diplomatic way when people are trained and given the tools to promote accountability.”

The key to that positive outcome was the storytelling strategy that the prep session participants brought to the tables where they sat during the event.

“It was good to work out the kinks in talking about your trauma behind closed doors,” Hakim said. “Then when you get to the public square, you say what you need to say. People felt like they were actually heard. That’s what I really wanted—to help my community to establish its voice.”

Hakim said he envisions future dialogues between the LAPD and the city’s Muslim communities—achieving concrete changes like the police reforms enacted through Measure LL will take sustained effort. He also wants to see meetings between community leaders and the developers who are driving gentrification in South Los Angeles, particularly around the site of Inglewood’s new football stadium.

“We’ve trained around twenty leaders at this point,” Hakim remarked, referring to community accountability programs developed through the Intellect, Love and Mercy Foundation. “I would like to get to forty, sixty, one hundred. We need a platoon of people to address development! Enhancing the community is cool, but I want to be sure our people don’t get left behind in the process of progress.”

Whether it’s confronting tensions between citizens and police or managing development in a community where residents have historically been denied agency over their lives, Hakim is optimistic that the strategy that yielded signs of progress at Masjid Bilal can be replicated as a means of tackling other challenges.

“Out of this I hope people will see that there’s more than one way to approach a problem,” he said. “You’ve got to engage it from all angles.”

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Notes

[1] The Pew Research Center’s first-ever national survey of American Muslims (“Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream”), conducted in 2007, found that African-Americans account for roughly twenty percent of the total Muslim population in the U.S.

[2] Andrew J. Grandage, Britt S. Aliperti, and Brian N. Williams refer to this historical overlay of past practice that distorts police-citizen collaboration in the present as a “shadow effect.” See Grandage et al., “Leveraging the Intersection of Politics, Problem, and Policy in Organizational Change: An Historical Analysis of the Detroit, Los Angeles, and Atlanta Police Departments,” in James D. Ward, ed., Policing and Race in America: Economic, Political, and Social Dynamics (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 57.

[3] Dialogue is generally acknowledged as the key process involved in successful conflict resolution—specifically, as a prerequisite for de-essentializing the “other” and building trust between conflicting groups. See, for example, Ivana Markova and Alex Gillespie, eds., Trust and Conflict: Representation, Culture and Dialogue (New York: Routledge, 2011) and Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).

[4] Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Jane I. Smith, eds., Muslim Communities in North America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 166.

[5] Following the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers involved in the incident a year later, Mayor Tom Bradley formed the Christopher Commission to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the LAPD’s operations. Among other findings, the commission determined that nearly two hundred officers were implicated in repeated instances of excessive use of force. A few years later, officers in the elite Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) program figured prominently in the Rampart Division violence and corruption scandal. After a 12-year period of reform mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the LAPD was finally freed from federal oversight in 2013. See Grandage et al., “Leveraging the Intersection of Politics, Problem, and Policy in Organizational Change,” 71.

[6] According to the Pew Research Center’s 2017 Demographic Portrait of Muslim Americans, “American-born black Muslims are more likely than other U.S. Muslims to say it has become harder in recent years to be Muslim in the United States. Nearly all American-born black Muslims (96%) say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims in America, almost identical to the share who say there is a lot of discrimination against black people in the U.S. (94%).”

 

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

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