Thursday, February 27, 2014

Orange County History vs. Myth

My writing classes this semester are reading Gustavo Arellano's fascinating book Orange County: a Personal History.  The theme of all my courses is "Writing About Local Issues," and this book provides a nice introduction to the strange geographical/cultural/social phenomenon known as Orange County, California.  Today, we discussed a chapter entitled "Our Climate is Faultless": Constructing America's Perpetual Eden, which explores myth vs. reality in Orange County history, particularly how and why historical myths are created.  I asked my students to discuss the following questions.  As they discussed them, I wrote my own answers, and they are as follows:

1.) What is the "Cult of the Orange Crate"? Is it based on myth or reality, or both?

The "Cult of the Orange Crate" is the version of Orange County's past based on orange crate art, which presented an idealized and beautiful past.  There was some truth to this (oranges were grown here), but what the myth hides is the violence, racism, and unjust labor relations that actually existed as part of the citrus industry.

2.) How does Zorro fit into Orange County history (or myth)?

Zorro did not actually exist.  He was a fictional hero created by author Johnston McCulley.  The Zorro stories and films were placed in a real historical setting (San Juan Capistrano, for example), but they are a mix of fact and fantasy.  Like the Cult of the Orange Crate, Zorro presented a romanticized, idealized version of the past, which masked some important realities.  Zorro prompts two questions in my mind: How does popular culture distort our view of the past?  How can we, as academics, separate fact from myth?

3.) Why is Mexican labor usually left out of the Orange County history/myth?

Mexican labor, the citrus workers who picked and packed the oranges and made them such a profitable industry, are left out of the story because they were exploited.  They were paid low wages, lived in segregated housing, and went to segregated schools.  Restoring the Mexican laborer to Orange County's history causes us to seriously re-think our idealzied myths.

4.) What was the 1936 Citrus War, and why is it usually ignored by local historians?

The 1936 Citrus War began as a strike by (mostly) Mexican citrus workers in Orange County, who wanted a union, higher wages, and better working conditions.  Rather than negotiating with the workers and acknowledging their legitimate grievances, the wealthy owners of orange groves and packinghouses violently suppressed the striking workers--arresting many, deploying sheriff's deputies, and basically acting like total fascists.  This story is usually ignored by local historans because many of the well-known Orange County pioneers basically acted like fascists toward their workers, and that (in hindsight) is embarrassing.

And then we discussed these questions together as a class.  What began as a local/regional discussion evolved into a larger philosophical discussion of how we know anything.  In what sense is our sense of reality based on myths?  How do we find the truth?  This, the desire to pluck truth from falsehood, is at the heart of academic reasarch and writing.  While we can never be 100 percent certain that our version of history/reality is correct, there is value in diving into the struggle to understand, and this takes a lot of work and reading.  In the case of local history, it involves reading things most people would find profoundly boring--news paper archives, oral histories, academic theses and dissertations, journals, government records, etc.  That is the task of the researcher.

The task of the writer is to take all that raw material and fashion it, like an artist, into something meaningful, coherent, and (hopefully) not boring, and (hopefully) truer than popular myths.  This is a difficult and ongoing endeavor, but (in my experience) it has the power to radically change the way people think about their past, present, and future.

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