Orange County's lost essence
Images of orchards created an aura, but the bucolic idealization concealed economic turmoil.By Gustavo Arellano
August 10, 2008
Whether I'm headed for Little Arabia or Angel Stadium, my parents' house for a visit or City Hall on assignment, I always try to pass through one specific area of Anaheim when I visit my hometown -- a slice of Santa Ana Street between Anaheim and Harbor boulevards. I drive by not just for nostalgia's sake -- this is the barrio where I was born and raised until the age of 9, when Mom and Dad pooled their tomato-canner and big-rig salaries to buy into the three-bedroom, two-bath American dream -- but because I have a perverse fascination with disappearing, symbolic history.
Along this stretch of road lies the past, present and future essence of Orange County. On the corner of Anaheim Boulevard and Santa Ana Street stands the Sunkist Packing House, an icon of Spanish Revival architecture. My grandfather packed oranges here during the 1920s, a time when citrus groves dominated the city landscape and growers hired hundreds of Mexican workers fresh off the trains that rumbled past the structure. This beautiful building has been abandoned for decades, however, and a generation of Anaheimers knows it better for the ice house that operated out back until this year.
Looking west from the Sunkist Packing House, you can make out a small, fenced-off lot in the distance. Inside is one of the last original orange groves in Orange County. It's tiny -- no more than half the size of a football field's end zone, weed-choked and generally sad. This was where the 1936 Citrus War began, a strike between Mexican pickers and the Orange County establishment that remains one of the most brutally suppressed, little-documented labor conflicts in California history. Nothing commemorates this monumental event, and the plump fruit hanging from the now neglected trees frequently falls to the ground and rots. Next to this mini-orchard are town homes where oranges grew not even five years ago. More town homes are on the way. Soon, that historic grove will be no more.
Citrus is in the news again behind the Orange Curtain, although it's been decades since the industry figured heavily in the county's livelihood. In Santa Ana, developers plan to erect houses on five acres where orange trees currently sway. Down south in San Juan Capistrano, city officials pressured 84-year-old Ignacio Lujano to leave what used to be the Swanner Ranch, 42 acres that are now city property. Until last weekend, Lujano tended oranges there for 38 years; now the city will build a maintenance yard. After the bulldozers have their way in Santa Ana and San Juan Capistrano, the county's remaining 100 or so acres of orange trees will have been halved.
Residents in both cities launched halfhearted efforts to save these heritage sites, halfhearted because they realize "progress" rules in Orange County. Our leaders long ago deemed bark-and-leaf orange groves worthless. And yet, as an abstraction, as propaganda, as a symbol of our civic ambition, King Citrus reigns as powerful as ever.
At the height of O.C.'s orange farming days, Valencias alone covered more than 67,000 acres -- about 13% of the county's total land. Men of renown participated in the business -- Rep. James Utt, radio evangelist Charles E. Fuller, sheriffs, city fathers and other businessmen. The fertile soil that brought them riches became the engine of Orange County's economy -- producing agricultural bounty before World War II, and space to pave over for suburb after suburb through the present day.
In the process, the fruit went from a real cash crop to just something to cash in on. In fact, the use of Citrus sinensis for civic mythmaking precedes the formation of the county in 1889, and even before the formation of a serious orange industry, which took off in the 1890s.
"The organizers of Orange County chose that name for the sordid purpose of real estate," local historian Jim Sleeper wrote in 1974. "They argued that Eastern people would be attracted by the name, and would rush to that county to buy orange ranches, forgetful, or perhaps ignorant, of the fact that there were more than a hundred other places in the United States named Orange."
The name conjured bountiful nature. Charles C. Chapman, the self-appointed "father of the Valencia orange," wrote in 1911: "Indeed, the Divine hand has been lavish in bestowing upon all Southern California, and upon Orange County in particular, rare natural advantages, perhaps greater than those enjoyed by any other section over which the flag floats. Our climate is faultless. In fact, it is not too much to say that as to fertility of soil, the charming climate and the scenery with its grandeur and beauty, it is not surpassed the world around."
Such bombastic brazenness forever characterized Orange County. Really, can you think of us without noting our fantastical hubris? From Disneyland proclaiming itself "the happiest place on Earth" (with little empirical evidence), to the O.C. GOP stating on its website that it represents "America's most Republican county!" (exclamation point in the original!), the keepers of Orange County's image flame learned from the pioneers to insist that we're better than anyone else.
Consider the cult of the orange-crate label. It promoted brands with evocative names such as Esperanze, Mission or Albion during California's citrus era; they're now collector's items, prized for fanciful, idyllic depictions of Old California -- perfect groves, gauzy foothills, flirtatious señoritas. More crucially, this folk art ingrained such romanticized scenes into the American mind, passed off as snapshots of California to inspire the mass in-migrations the state experienced for decades afterward.
Even now in Orange County, those pastorals function as historical documents, primary sources of a past that never existed. The county seal features three oranges in the foreground, with rows of trees leading to the Saddleback Mountains -- no developments, no people, just the promise of a perpetual Eden. Concrete pillars with bas-relief oranges stand along the 22 Freeway, and paintings of oranges dot Interstate 5; both beautification projects cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Civic organizations and politicians print fliers and posters with orange-crate label art to infuse their causes with a down-home, bucolic sheen.
Everyone knows that this idealization is a fraud. The insatiable thirst for cheap labor to harvest oranges through the 1960s set us on the course for our current immigration troubles, while naranjeros such as my grandfather faced rampant segregation that in many ways continues (drive while Mexican at night in Newport Beach, and you'll understand). The constant push to extract as much value from property as possible, whether by record sales of oranges at the turn of the century, or by the square footage bought and sold since, is Orange County's truest legacy. Still, I can't help but feel sadness at the demise of our last orchards. The trees should remain as a living monument: their bounty visually beautiful, the sweet scent of blossoms pleasing the air, and the immigrant laborers who still tend to those endangered groves a much better reminder of who we are than sterilized Sunkist memories.
Gustavo Arellano is a contributing editor to Opinion and writes the syndicated ¡Ask a Mexican! column. His new book, "Orange County: A Personal History," will be released Sept. 16.