By Daniel C. Tsang
Special to the OC Voice
IN RECENT years Orange County has become widely known via television and other media portrayals as “The OC,” promoting perceptions of a largely homogeneous and wealthy “white” populace.
In reality, the county has experienced dramatic demographic change in recent decades, largely due to the impact of immigrants from all over the world.
A new UC Irvine Libraries exhibit, which opened Nov. 18, depicts the lives of immigrants in southern California, with a focus on Orange County, from the late 19th century to the present. Topics include the legacy of an often turbulent past, the changing face of the population, the contemporary debate about immigration, and issues affecting immigrant workers. The exhibit also highlights immigrants’ own stories, the plight of the undocumented, public policy issues, and the role of gender in migration. Numerous books and papers written by UCI faculty authors are included.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state’s immigrant population increased fivefold between 1970 and 2006, from 1.8 million to 9.9 million, including those who were naturalized as U.S. citizens. Today one in four Californians is an immigrant, a higher proportion than in any other state. Most are from Latin America or Asia.
In researching materials from the UCI Libraries’ collections for the exhibit, which I am curating, I realized it was a need for foreign labor that led to the first wave of immigrants to the United States from China. Chinese farm workers were hired by German settlers in Anaheim who needed laborers to cultivate grapes on their vineyards in the mid-19th Century. Asian American Studies scholar Patricia Lin notes that the Chinese were not only “expert grape growers and pickers, but they were used extensively in the construction of irrigation ditches, wine cellars, and casks.” One hundred twenty-five Chinese would later work to extend the Southern Pacific Railroad line from Los Angeles to Anaheim in 1873 and to Santa Ana in 1877.
By the 1890s, after Orange County broke off from Los Angeles County (in 1888), anti-Chinese feelings were running high, and shacks belonging to Chinese celery workers were burned down, as was the building of the Earl Fruit Company.
Echoing purges of Chinese elsewhere in the west during an earlier anti-immigrant era, in May 1906 Santa Ana city authorities ordered the fire department to burn down Chinatown on the pretext of eradicating disease (a Chinese man was suspected of suffering from leprosy). The neighborhood had been occupied by about 200 Chinese, who were evacuated before the fire. Calling the fire a “holocaust,” The Los Angeles Times reported, in language reflective of the era, that the “burned-out chinks” would be compensated. But in the end the city refused to pay the displaced residents more than trivial compensation.
Anti-immigrant groups organized around the state to “Keep California White”. California began segregating schools: Chinese, Japanese and “Mongolian” children could not go to school with whites. Despite the law’s focus on Asians, Mexican children also were segregated. This caused Gonzalo Mendez, the father in a mixed Mexican/Puerto Rican family, and four other fathers, to file a civil rights lawsuit in federal court. The resulting 1947 appellate court decision in Mendez v. Westminster found that the three Mendez children and other Mexican children could attend white schools, since the law did not directly apply. The case preceded by several months the legal end of school segregation in California, and led to the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ended school segregation by law in the United States once and for all.
Turmoil also occurred in Orange County in its citrus fields, as farm workers sought better working conditions and in 1936, staged one of the West’s most extensive strikes. That strike ended the myth of “contented Mexican labor,” according to UCI labor historian Gilbert Gonzalez, who called it one of the “most violently suppressed” labor disputes of the period. County sheriff Logan Jackson, himself a citrus rancher, ordered his deputies to “shoot to kill” strikers. His order was emblazoned across the front page of the Santa Ana Register, as the Orange County Register was then called. The strike involved almost 3,000 citrus pickers in Orange County, with 400 arrested, most on flimsy charges according to Gonzalez.
The demographic changes we see today are thus a legacy of the sweat and toil of countless long-forgotten working men and women who overcame adversity and helped build the vibrant and pulsating multi-ethnic communities that make up the Orange County of today.
The exhibit continues in Langson Library lobby through late April, 2009. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 949 824 5300.
Daniel C. Tsang is the Social Sciences Data Librarian at UCI, Irvine.
This article was previously published in the December, 2008 print edition of the OC Voice.