My English 100 classes at Fullerton College are currently reading Gustavo Arellano’s excellent book Orange County: a Personal History, and writing essays about local culture. Today’s theme was “how understanding the past helps us understand the present.” We read together a section from Gustavo’s book in which he gives a very brief and concise history of Orange County, which can be divided into four main eras, which I have paraphrased as follows:
I. Native American Era (8000 B.C.E. - 1769)
For over 8000 years, the area currently known as Orange County was inhabited by native American tribes known as the Kizh (in the north) and the Acjachemen (in the south). They lived sustainably and developed their own culture, language, arts, and trade systems.
II. Spanish Era (1769-1821)
In 1769, Spanish conquistador Gaspar de Portola, along with Franciscan missionaries like Junipero Serra, began conquering and colonizing the land for Spain and the Catholic church. They built missions and forts, enslaved the Kizh and Acjachemen peoples, and began the process of decimating a culture that had existed for millennia. Having already conquered most of Latin America, the Spanish were very efficient at this.
III. Mexican Era (1821-1848)
In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain, after a costly war. At this time, Mexico also included the present-day American states of California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Wyoming and Colorado. The Missions were “secularized” (i.e. taken from the Catholic church) and largely abandoned, or incorporated into Mexican farming “ranchos.”
|Before the Mexican-American War|
IV. American Era (1848-present)
The United States saw it as their “Manifest Destiny” to conquer the North American continent from Atlantic to Pacific, and that meant taking mucho land from Mexico. So, from 1846-1848, under president James K. Polk, the U.S. waged the Mexican-American war, which resulted in Mexico losing half its country to the USA, with the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo. To assuage our guilty consciences about taking all this land by conquest, the U.S. paid Mexico 15 million dollars. California became a state of the Union in 1850, and remains so today.
|After the Mexican-American War|
I shared with my classes an illustrated timeline of Orange County history, based on a trip I took to the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, which has exhibits documenting all of this. My students were mostly shocked to learn that the Missions were basically west coast slavery, and that the Mexican American War was a war of conquest. Californians don’t typically think of their land in these terms. We tend to see things mainly from the lens of present reality, with a few nice myths thrown in: the “quaint” missions, the Gold Rush, the “Wild West” (our ideas being taken mainly from Hollywood films), and the steady advance of “progress.” But seen from a broader perspective, Orange County history is actually quite disturbing and tragic.
I asked my students why we don’t typically tell ourselves the true story. Why do we prefer comfortable myths? And how does understanding our past, our real past, inform (or transform) how we understand the present? How can approaching the past, through research and reflection, alter our perception of place? How can it transform even how we live, today, in our own times?