Slingshot: Lessons From Los Alamitos on Ethnic Studies
Los Alamitos, historically a sugar town, hasn't been all that sweet to people of color.
It's the kind of city where Dean Grose can resign as mayor after sending a racist email of watermelon patches outside the Obama White House only to be returned to council by voters not once but twice; he came within 17 votes of beating a Black woman last year and enjoying a third term since the controversy.
Little Los Alamitos also gained big national attention in 2018 after kicking off an ill-fated rebellion against California's "Sanctuary State" law for undocumented immigrants. The opt-out failed, but former mayor Troy Edgar was rewarded by President Donald Trump with an appointment as Chief Financial Officer for the Department of Homeland Security.
So when the Los Alamitos Unified School District first approved an ethnic studies elective course and then followed with the adoption of Social Justice Standards last week, it could only be another occasion for acrimony.
Opponents of ethnic studies criticized the elective course as a trojan horse for the big boogeyman of Critical Race Theory! A letter from those critics, who stressed being homegrown, claimed that, in tandem with Social Justice Standards, the board was poised to use "tax dollars to indoctrinate our students to hate themselves if they are white or white Adjacent or be made to feel like a victim if they are people of color."
The controversy stewed until Los Alamitos' police chief stepped in and advised that the school board meeting should go online last week for fear of political violence. Extremist members of the Proud Boys from out of town joined the rally held outside district headquarters but if they banked on clashing with antifa, nothing of the sorts materialized.
In the early morning hours, trustees meeting remotely approved the Social Justice Standards, a collection of supportive materials for anti-bias education as developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Learning for Justice initiative. The question of a curriculum for ethnic studies awaits next month, so, assuredly, the controversy ain't going anywhere soon.
But paranoia of the ethnic "other" in Los Alamitos is nothing new. It's deeply woven into the fabric of the town's local history, especially when Mexicans provided the labor as betabeleros (beet workers) at the onset of the 20th century.
And ethnic studies is always best when close to home, so here's a few local lessons in that spirit!
Let's begin with one of the most telling tales. Back in March 1916, the mere sight of a Mexican flag outside a home in a colonia triggered a laughable law enforcement panic. It started with constable John Murillo, whose job it was to police the Mexicans, alerting sheriff deputies to the tricolor and the possible uprising it signaled.
According to the Santa Ana Register, Sheriff Calvin Jackson gunned it to Los Alamitos expecting to see "the entire beetland countryside in terror." Instead, the scene proved serene. "Dozens of Mexicans eyes stared sleepily and curiously from out the lowly cottages of the peons," wrote the Register snobbishly. "Not a hostile move was made, not a hostile word uttered."
In time, the Mexican flag in question was found outside the window of a home with the owner saying it helped keep the wind out in addition to adding for some privacy. All the deputies could do afterward was patrol the town; they seized a rifle and warned pool hall owners that any hooch found would be similarly confiscated as much of the county turned dry under the law.
The following year wasn't a banner one for sugar beets. A labor shortage struck Los Alamitos' fields. White authorities investigated the possible cause early on. "I have found that a good many of the Los Alamitos Mexicans have gone to Van Nuys," Sheriff Jackson was quoted in the Register. "Beet thinning contractors are hustling for help all over Southern California, and the pay has gone up. It seems to be currently reported among the Mexicans that big wages are being paid in other beet growing sections."
Forget outside agitators, as had once been suspected in past pay disputes, bigger bucks made Van Nuys very nice for Mexis! Los Alamitos responded by bringing over more temporary betabeleros from Mexico.
But when not suspected of being seditionists or the dupes of them, maligned Mexicans were pegged as superspreaders.
Mexi panic struck Los Alamitos again, this time in the midst of the 1918 pandemic. An informant called deputies about a "wild raging Mexican, a bad hombre, a dangerous maniac" roaming the streets. Worse yet, he appeared stricken with the dreaded flu and held the town in the grips of fear.
Again, law enforcement sped to the scene. Instead of finding a "dangerous flu man" spewing disease, they happened upon him passed out on a heap of sawdust. Awakened by the deputies, the man reported feeling a "leetle seeck" (or at least that's the racist quote as it appeared in the Register!). Taken to the county hospital, all that he really had was a headache from a hangover.
These days, Latino students form the largest non-white segment of Los Alamitos Unified School District with Asian Americans coming in second. Both groups have historical ties to the city. What the district's ethnic studies curriculum will look like remains to be finalized. A preview shows the class to be anchored by Ronald Takaki's A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America. Supplemental texts include works focused on Filipinos, Cesar Chavez, Latino stereotypes in the media and white privilege.
It's all fine enough (although there should be more texts dedicated to Black folks).
But local lessons shouldn't be overlooked, either. The longest living lifetime resident of Los Alamitos was Esther Mejia who died in 2014.
The first lawman slain on the job in Orange County was Los Alamitos constable Juan Orosco. Scratch beneath the surface of that "Wild West" factoid and only more racism emerges. "Bad Cholo Gun Men Unchecked, Riotous," read the headline of the Los Angeles Times in Oct. 1907 a few months after the shooting. The subheader wasn't much better. "Town of Los Alamitos Almost at the Mercy of Wild Carousing Mexican Population--Seeking Officer to Quell Drunken Carnivals."
Sugar factory managers, as the article noted, were desperate to find a constable up for the job, one with the "nerve and ability to keep the Mexican population in order."
For Mexican stereotypes in media, lesson plans needn't look any further than the past pages of the Register or the Times, especially where it concerned Los Alamitos. For the fields, a harvest of white anxiety greeted Mexican betabeleros far from the grapes of Delano just as it does now in Los Alamitos with the mere utterance of "ethnic studies" and "social justice."
The protests against the school district's recent moves, in this context, are just the turning of another page in the story of Los Alamitos.
All that's missing is a Mexican flag perched somewhere on the edge of paranoia.
- Gabriel San Román
Tito smash Juicy Juice! / YouTube Screenshot
Editor's note: The Slingshot is happy to welcome "Councilbro Chronicles" as a new feature! Its focus is on one Mayor Bro Tem in Huntington Beach named Tito Ortiz and all his bumbling misdeeds. The contributor remains anonymous. Take it away, whoever you are!
Tito Ortiz’s entertaining (and consistently baffling) brand of trash-talk played well in the world of mixed martial arts. But now, Huntington Beach’s wannabe “Bad Boy” is learning that it’s far from “anything goes” for politicians on social media.
On May 3, the Huntington Beach City Council passed a set of new social media rules for elected and appointed city officials. The policy applies basic sunshine law principles to online spaces: don’t block constituents, retain copies of interactions for public records, don’t delete comments (with an exception for obscene or dangerous content) and abide by the city’s Code of Ethics.
Unsurprisingly, this new policy is very unpopular with Ortiz’s supporters who assume it directly and unfairly targets their councilbro. After all of his social media gaffes, including the now infamous TK Burger incident, it’s easy to see why. But he isn’t the only one guilty of bad online behavior--councilmember Mike Posey has been forced to unblock at least one constituent and Mayor Kim Carr received criticism for allegedly deleting comments.
Despite using verified accounts on both Instagram and Facebook to discuss local issues and policies, Ortiz argued during the discussion of this agenda item that his Facebook should be considered “public,” and his Instagram should be considered “personal.” A week later, out of a sudden abundance of caution, he decided to set up another Instagram account specifically for his council-related activities, with the handle @titoortizhbcc.
To Ortiz’s credit, his official Instagram account has so far followed the letter, if not always the spirit, of the law. He’s posted three pictures: an American flag, an uncredited photo of the moon setting behind the HB pier, and an image reshared from “SaveCalifornia.com” about the protests at the March 11 OC Board of Supervisors meeting. I thought that last one might violate the Code of Ethics clause on avoiding “actions that might cause the public to question...independent judgement,” but then I listened to some of the public comments at the BOS meeting. Yikes.
Critics Ortiz blocked on other platforms flocked to his new Instagram page to speak their mind. Some criticized his refusal to wear a mask. Others asked him to “tell a jackal story,” a reference to one of Ortiz’s most famous interview flubs. Much of the chatter asked questions about his recent unemployment insurance scandal. Ortiz finally caved and posted a rebuttal to the OC Register’s reporting of his application, though most of what he claimed was false.
And with a clean copy free of grammatical gremlins, I’ll bet two TK burgers that Ortiz didn’t write it himself!
Much like his orange-tinged idol, Ortiz regularly refers to criticisms of his political career as “defamation,” even as he spreads outright lies about our current president, governor, and health officials at every level of government. When he criticizes our government, he’s being a responsible citizen, but when we criticize him as part of our government, we’re being, like, totally unfair.
When asked, “What exactly are you doing for Huntington Beach?” Ortiz replied, “Watch and see.” If the last five months is any indication, there won’t be all that much to look at.
Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina
In the glorious name of digging into Disney, I've recently devoured more books by white former corporate executives than ever before--and I haven't even dusted off a copy of Bob Iger's A Ride of a Lifetime yet. A tome I did finish, though, was Jack Lindquist's In Service to the Mouse, a retrospective about his journey in becoming the first president of Disneyland.
Disnerds will find Lindquist's Mouse House memories from the early days fascinating, especially his unlikely start as its advertising manager. He showcased a knack for offbeat, innovative ideas like "Date Nite" promotions throughout his career; Lindquist's proudest moment seems to be the free car lottery that greeted guests in celebration of Disneyland's 30th birthday in 1985.
His most enduring idea, however, is the copper "partners" statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse in the backdrop of Sleeping Beauty's Castle to honor the founding father posthumously.
But students of local Orange County politics will take special note of Lindquist's memories of the Anaheim Ichthyological, Sour Mash and Five Card Draw Society. What the hell is that mish-mashed club, anyway? Well, first, it was the brainchild of Ed Ettinger, director of public public relations at Disneyland, in 1959. Second, it served as an elbow-rubbing opportunity for Disney execs, Anaheim department heads, council members, local newspaper publishers and prominent business leaders in town.
"No deals were made," Lindquist assured, "we just talked business."
Annual get togethers turned into booze-drenched debauchery in the book's rather unfiltered recountings. Drunk on a bus to San Diego for some chartered fishing into Mexican waters, some of the group's rowdier members pelted a highway patrol car with beer and soda cans--and managed to not get arrested.
The booze continued to flow at a hotel in San Diego and led to a mishap where the city's mayor was on the receiving end of mashed potatoes flung over dinner.
It took the OC Register until the 1980s to report on the social club and its outings, dispatches that effectively shamed all parties into ending them. Lindquist responded by gathering everyone for a luncheon. "We do not talk policy matters," he said. "We will argue our views with the city, publicly, when the time is right."
The oddly-named social club may be no more, but Disney's relations with city leaders remains as cozy as ever. And ain't it something that on those policy matters throughout the years, from avoiding an admission tax and visual intrusions, Anaheim City Hall has been in alignment with its Mouse-eared chums?
Must be magic--or the enduring spirit of sour mash.
Lead photo: Los Alamitos Sugar Factory, 1910 / Public domain