Local News

The Roots of Inequality: The Citrus Industry Prospered on the Back of Segregated Immigrant Labor

It’s no secret that Orange County, including Fullerton, was built on oranges. During the first half of the 20th century, the County became a major producer of citrus for both the United States and the world.

Between 1890 and 1960 “citrus produced more wealth than had gold in California history and ranked second only to the oil industry in California’s economy,” according to historian Gilbert Gonzalez.

By 1938, Orange County had 75,000 acres of citrus groves. In Fullerton, the Sunny Hills ranch alone contained over 4,000 acres of orange groves. The Bastanchury family, which owned the ranch, claimed that it was the largest orange grove in the world. This agricultural history is often remembered fondly in local histories, old post cards, and colorful orange crate labels, which can be found at antique stores.

However, there is an aspect of the citrus story that is often left out—the fact that its massive success was made possible on the backs of a segregated Mexican immigrant labor force.

Mexican orange workers lived in segregated housing and their children attended segregated schools.

Picking Labor

Perhaps the seminal work written on the subject of Mexican citrus workers in Orange County is Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County: 1900-1950 by Gilbert G. Gonzalez, professor at UCI.

The history of farm labor in California generally, and Orange County in particular is a history of successive waves of immigrants who were recruited, generally exploited for their labor, and often excluded either through direct deportation or legal pressure.

In the late 19th century, there was widespread employment of Chinese farm labor. Unfortunately, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 cut off this labor supply. Thus, to fill the labor vacuum, Japanese immigrants were recruited for a couple of decades, until they were excluded through various “Alien Land Laws.”

The decline of Japanese farm labor coincided with a sharp rise of Mexican immigrant labor, who were recruited by growers and were fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution.

“Fortunately for the citrus grower, acreage expansion occurred simultaneously with the first great Mexican migration to the United States. Nearly 750,000 Mexicans moved north between 1900 and 1930, escaping the violence, destruction, and destitution wrought by the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Indeed, economic development throughout the Southwest proceeded on the availability of Mexican immigrant labor,” Gonzales explains.

Unlike other crops which could be harvested with large machines, oranges had to be harvested by hand, which required an enormous number of workers.

The California Fruit Growers Exchange (a cooperative of orange growers) lobbied congress for an “open border policy” in the early 20th century to fill their labor needs.

Workers were paid more than they could earn in Mexico, but wages were low by American standards.

According to historian Cletus Daniel, “farm employers, with few exceptions, sought to squeeze the last measure of profit out of their businesses by cutting labor costs to the bone.”

While men were employed as orange pickers, women were employed in the ever-growing packinghouses along the railroad tracks of Orange County.

Social Hierarchy

The presence of a large Mexican labor force in the Anglo-dominated towns of Orange County, including Fullerton, led to policies of segregation and second class citizenship for the Mexican workers and their families.

“Mexicans in citrus towns were invariably the pickers and packers; and consequently they were poor, segregated into colonies or villages, and socially ostracized, even though they were economically indispensable to the larger society,” Gonzalez writes. “The class structure in rural areas has generally divided along lines of nationality. At the top, the growers, native-born white; at the bottom, the foreign-born migrants, or his or her children.”

“A lid on the possibility for economic change and social progress tethered the Mexican community to function as cheap labor. Legal restrictive covenants segregating residential zones mirrored the division of labor. In public parks, swimming pools, theaters, restaurants, bars, dance halls, clubs and societies, Mexican immigrants and their families were either systematically excluded or segregated,” Gonzalez writes.

Housing Segregation

Beginning in the 1920s, a pattern of segregated housing was established, separating the orange worker families from the dominant community.

“Mexican houses were often tiny, wooden, adobe, or hollow-brick buildings constructed on the less desirable and often dangerous sections of the association property,” Gonzalez writes.

On the Bastanchury Ranch, six small villages of some 30 families each were scattered about the property.

One of the six settlements, called “Tiajuanita” by residents, was built with “scraps of sheet iron, discarded fence posts and sign-boards, and served by one lone water faucet and a few makeshift privies.”

Another worker camp in Fullerton, called Campo Pomona was located at Balcom and Commonwealth.

Campo Pomona.

The head of the Fullerton Unified High School “Americanization” Department [charged with educating picker children and adults] stated that the “American neighbors who felt their property had been devaluated [sic] by its close proximity to the Mexicans treated them with humiliating scorn.”

School Segregation

On the camps, there were schools built exclusively for the Mexican children.

“Segregated schooling assumed a pedagogical norm that was to endure into the fifties and parallels in remarkable ways the segregation of African Americans across the United States,” Gonzalez writes. “By the mid-1920s, the segregated schooling process in the county expanded, matured, and solidified, was manifested in fifteen exclusively Mexican schools, together enrolling nearly four thousand pupils. All the Mexican schools except one were located in citrus growing areas of the county…Distinctions between Mexican and Anglo schools included differences in their physical quality.”

There was a school on the Bastanchury Ranch and on Campo Pomona.

The “Mexican School” on the Bastanchury Ranch.

Unlike at the white schools, curriculum at the Mexican school was generally limited to vocational subjects, and junior high was considered the end of schooling for most students, many of whom accompanied their parents in the groves and packinghouses.

One woman who taught at these segregated “Mexican Schools” was Arletta Kelly.

Kelly describes her struggle to convince her colleagues that Mexican students had the same potential as whites.

“Some of my colleagues here would laugh at me and say, ‘Are you a wetback?’” she said.

In addition to educating children, teachers at the “Mexican schools” also taught “Americanization” classes to adults—to assimilate the workers to American society.

“Whereas the Americanization programs in the local villages appear unique, in reality they reflected a generalized expression for the eradication of national cultural differentiation across the United States,” Gonzalez writes.

Campo Pomona during the 1938 flood.

Under the California Home Teachers Act of 1915, Americanization programs focused on the teaching of English.

Louis E. Plummer, superintendent of the Fullerton High School District, staunchly supported Americanization because in his view the persistence of “Little Italys, Little Chinas, Little Mexicos” stifled the development of a “homogeneous people.” In particular, the failure of Mexicans to live in a “model way” or as “first class citizens,” which was produced by “a hangover of lazy independence” made it imperative that rather than merely learning skills, Mexicans had to learn and live within the fundamental cultural norms of the United States. His perspective summarized much of the Americanization spirit in the larger community during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“Many a surviving villager resident has not forgotten that in their youth the ‘Anglos never wanted to have anything to do with us except that we pick their oranges.’ Such was the nature of the dominant contours in the Mexican and Anglo social relations in the citrus towns,” Gonzalez writes.

Deportation

During the Great Depression, hostilities against the Mexican workers rose to clamors for deportation.

According to Druzilla Mackey, another teacher in the Mexican camp schools, “The American Community…felt that the jobs done so patiently by Mexicans for so many years should now be given to them. ‘Those’ Mexicans instead of ‘our’ Mexicans should ‘all be shipped right back to Mexico where they belong’…And so, one morning we saw nine train-loads of our dear friends roll away back to the windowless, dirt-floor homes we had taught them to despise.”

What she is referring to is a mass deportation of nearly all of the Mexican workers on the Bastanchury Ranch in the early 1930s. This deportation was part of a much larger deportation effort across the United States, which is described at length in the book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s.

“Outside of the community, the Mexican became the scapegoat,” Gonzalez writes. “In 1931 and 1932, local and county governments caught up in the drive across the Untied States to deport Mexicans sought to cut budgets through repatriating Mexicans. Induced through threats of relief cutoff sweetened with an offer of free transportation, about 2,000 left Orange County.” Many were actually American citizens. A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Fullerton resident Manuel Rivas Maturino, who was born on the Bastanchury Ranch, and remembers the experience of “repatriation.”

Local author Gustavo Arellano describes this situation in his 2013 OC Weekly article “The Lost Mexicans of Bastanchury Ranch.

Village Culture

Despite the hardships of poverty, segregation, and discrimination, the Mexican workers and their families managed to establish a vibrant local culture that included religious and patriotic events, as well as sports.

A major annual celebration was the 16th of September, or Mexican Independence Day, which included a parade, music, and festivities.

Popular community Christmas activities included Las Posadas (a community-wide reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s nine-day journey in search of lodging), and Pastorelas (a morality play depicting the struggle between good and evil, Jesus and the devil).

“Perhaps the most elaborate religious procession occurred on December 12, Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, commemorating the appearance of the Virgin Mary before the Indian boy Juan Diego on a Mexico City hilltop in 1598,” Gonzalez writes.

For these occasions local bands, like Fullerton’s Rancho de los Panchos, and The Joe Raya Orchestra from Placentia would play at different camps.

Baseball was also popular in the camps, and many teams were formed such as the La Habra team Los Juviniles, and the Placentia Merchants.

Unionization and the 1936 Strike

In 1936, nearly 3,000 orange workers went on strike, which highlighted “sharp social divisions and submerged hostilities separating the villagers from the dominant community,” according to Gonzalez.

The strikers organized to demand better wages and working conditions.

Orange County Sheriff Logan Jackson (himself a citrus rancher) “warned the union that he…was prepared to call 500 special deputies into action at a moment’s notice. Sheriff’s deputies and police officers made daily and nightly rounds of the villages, submitting reports to the growers and noting all unusual activities,” Gonzalez explains. “Law enforcement let it be widely known that they planned wholesale arrests of citrus strike agitators who violate technical provisions of the state traffic laws.”

Over the course of the strike, four hundred men and women were arrested.

At its peak, the strike erupted into violence.

“In coordinated forays on July 6, caravans of pickets descended on strike breakers at several locations, charging into the groves, pulling down ladders, upsetting orange boxes, physically routing strike breakers, and engaging in battles with armed deputized foremen and growers…Four hundred police, highway patrol, and sheriffs deputies sped to the conflicts, chasing, clubbing, and arresting strikers in wild melees. As the battle zone quieted, some two hundred unionists were arrested and jailed, 55 cars were confiscated in what the Los Angeles Times described as a ‘miniature civil war,’” Gonzalez writes.

Sheriff Jackson actually issued a “shoot to kill” order for his deputies and declared, “This is no fight between orchardists and pickers…It is a fight between the entire population of Orange County and a bunch of communists.”

Red-baiting was a common practice of the growers, who tried to paint the workers as radicals and communists. The strike ended in mid-July with some wage increases, but no union recognition or bargaining rights.

World War II: The Decline of the Citrus Picker Village, the Rise of the Barrio

The Second World War brought some significant changes for the worker villages of Orange County.

There was a large-scale campaign to again recruit workers from Mexico to fill wartime labor shortages, and thus was born the Bracero Program, which existed from the early 1940s to the 1960s.

These temporary workers did more than complement the existing labor force—they also served to replace it.

“Where it was feasible, citrus ranchers stopped using already resident Mexican villagers as pickers and replaced them with temporary status braceros,” Gonzalez writes. “Once again, associations had found a dependable labor supply to supplant the one that had learned the benefits of organization. Many growers would say that braceros ‘saved the crops,’ however, they might more accurately have said that ‘braceros saved the industry from unionism.’”

Between 1943 and 1958, about 70,000 braceros were transported to Orange County.

Meanwhile, segregation still fragmented the community. But change was coming.

Challenging Segregation

By the mid-1940s, a new political and social consciousness was emerging among the second generation of Mexican Americans—a desire for civil rights, social equality, and the end of segregation.

One manifestation of this was the landmark case Mendez v. Westminster, in which a group of Mexican American parents in Orange County filed a lawsuit arguing that their constitutional rights were violated by segregated schools.

“The Mendez case attracted national attention and is considered a precursor to the 1954 Supreme Court [Brown v. Board of Education] decision overturning the heinous practice of racial segregation,” Gonzalez writes.

Additionally, the 1943 Doss v. Bernal case was a major victory against racially restrictive housing covenants, which had been used for many years to keep non-whites from buying or renting houses in many neighborhoods.

Alex Bernal, a Fullerton homeowner, was sued by his white neighbors, who argued that the Bernals weren’t Caucasian and couldn’t live in the neighborhood.

Bernal’s lawyer argued that Mexican Americans were subject to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and the courts ruled that the Bernals could stay in their home.

Housing discrimination would become officially illegal in the 1960s, with the Rumford Fair Housing Act.

World War II also expanded job opportunities for Mexican Americans beyond agricultural work, as the area began its transition into a more industrial/suburban economy.

“Urbanization slowly enveloped the villages until they were no longer isolated or semi-isolated rural-like hamlets,” Gonzalez writes. “Grove after grove disappeared, some 75,000 choice acres across the region between 1946-56… Disappearing citrus groves were replaced by mushrooming housing tracts that transformed Orange County into an emerging regional suburbia.”

As the spacial distance between the Mexican communities and the dominant communities shortened, “the urban barrio entered the social stage, assuming the welcoming role formerly played by the citrus worker village,” according to Gonzalez.

Thus, although legally enforced segregation has become illegal, the social dynamics of community fragmentation, in some ways continues today—Fullerton “south of the tracks” is generally lower income/Latino and the hilly northern parts are generally upperincome/white and Korean.

These patterns are, in large part, a legacy of the citrus industry.

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5 replies »

  1. This was such a fabulous read! Entertaining and educational all at once. I learned so much about Fullerton and it’s Mexican and Mexican-American community. Halfway into the article I began reading this in the voice of Edward James Olmos. I would have loved for this to have continued into what life was like for the descendants of Immigrant Villagers in the 70’s or expanded into personal accounts from the Mexican Immigrant Villagers. Nonetheless great, great, great writing.

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