Orange County: A Personal History

Orange County: A Personal History

by Gustavo Arellano


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The story began in 1918, when Gustavo Arellano's great-grandfather and grandfather arrived in the United States, only to be met with flying potatoes. They ran, and hid, and then went to work in Orange County's citrus groves, where, eventually, thousands of fellow Mexican villagers joined them. Gustavo was born sixty years later, the son of a tomato canner who dropped out of school in the ninth grade and an illegal immigrant who snuck into this country in the trunk of a Chevy. Meanwhile, Orange County changed radically, from a bucolic paradise of orange groves to the land where good Republicans go to die, American Christianity blossoms, and way too many bad television shows are green-lit.

Part personal narrative, part cultural history, Orange County is the outrageous and true story of the man behind the wildly popular and controversial column ¡Ask a Mexican! and the locale that spawned him. It is a tale of growing up in an immigrant enclave in a crime-ridden neighborhood, but also in a promised land, a place that has nourished America's soul and Gustavo's family, both in this country and back in Mexico, for a century.

Nationally bestselling author, syndicated columnist, and the spiciest voice of the Mexican-American community, Gustavo Arellano delivers the hilarious and poignant follow-up to ¡Ask a Mexican!, his critically acclaimed debut. Orange County not only weaves Gustavo's family story with the history of Orange County and the modern Mexican-immigrant experience but also offers sharp, caliente insights into a wide range of political, cultural, and social issues.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416540052
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 11/15/2010
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Gustavo Arellano’s ¡Ask a Mexican! column has a circulation of more than two million in thirty-eight markets (and counting). He has received the President’s Award from the Los Angeles Press Club, an Impact Award from the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and a 2008 Latino Spirit Award from the California State legislature. Arellano has appeared on the Today show, Nightline, NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and The Colbert Report. For more information, visit

Read an Excerpt

This Is How We Do It in the OC
(Don't Call It That)
I've seen the Mexican future of this country, the coming Reconquista -- and it's absolutely banal.
Our looming takeover is spreading across America and will resemble the neighborhood where my parents live in Anaheim, California, Mexico. The houses here all feature the same basic design: three bedrooms, two baths, a long living room connected to the dining room, divided from the kitchen by a bar. Half of the houses keep pools, the others backyards. Garages jut out from the dining room. Depending on the garage's layout, the driveway either gently curves or rises upward at a dramatic angle, guaranteeing your car's undercarriage a daily scratch. About twenty years ago, this section of Anaheim was mostly white, baby boomers and their parents. Today? All Latino, save for the white man across the street who let his yard turn brown years ago.
Trembling yet? Really, the only way you would know it's a Latino neighborhood is due to a very American phenomenon called conspicuous consumption. Every house has at least four cars parked outside: all nice, mostly large SUVs with a smattering of Toyotas occasionally parked on front lawns. Those lawns feature palm trees or roses -- no cactuses yet -- and the richer households erect ornate fountains and stonework to rival the Alhambra. No Mexican flags flutter above doorways, no roosters crow at dawn -- at least not since Dad gave ours away because the cock kept assaulting dogs.
I moved out a couple of years ago at age twenty-seven, no longer content to share a bunk bed with my teenage brother. But a Mexican mother's breakfast beckons even the most prodigal ofsons, so I return every Sunday morning to marvel at how Ozzie and Harriet our lives are -- how absolutely banal. The Mexican conquest of the United States might not get televised, but it comes with a steaming bowl of menudo.
Don't believe me? Consider one Sunday, around November 2007.
I speed in around nine thirty in the morning, and damnit! No one is home.
Start dialing cell phones. Elsa, my school administrator of a sister, is organizing workshops for college-bound students -- most of them Vietnamese, in a school that's majority Latino. Twenty-one-year-old Alejandrina settles in for a Starbucks study session -- she wants to be a nurse, or maybe a teacher. Gabriel, the seventeen-year-old baby of our clan, who already towers over us all, is with Mom at a dentist's appointment. My father? No answer.
Where's the remote? The usual detritus of Householdus americanus clutters the living room -- water bottles, newspapers, backpacks. A Guitar Hero ax stands by the marbled fireplace. Jesus looms over me in the form of a huge oil painting bought at the swap meet -- still don't know why Mami replaced our family portrait in favor of the Savior, considering she shows up at Mass as often as a Jew. To my right in a bookcase are small framed portraits of Elsa in her cap-and-gown from the University of California, Los Angeles, Alejandrina's high school graduation picture, and a younger Gabriel wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap (he's a Los Angeles Dodgers fan now -- ah, front-runners). Ken Burns's Baseball series is on the top shelf, missing episode 7. And smack-dab in the middle is a photo of me grinning, holding a half-eaten tamale. Speaking of tamales, I toss three in the microwave -- one dessert, one pork, one made with cheese, chicken, and jalapeños, all leftovers from our Thanksgiving dinner.
The doorbell rings. It's my father. He's dressed for work -- jeans, cowboy boots, baseball cap -- and his smile bends an increasingly salt-and-pepper mustache.
"Wassappenin', macho man?" Papi booms in heavily accented English. I turn away, embarrassed. "Ven, ven, ven -- gimme a handchake!" We embrace. He beams.
"¿Dónde estaba?" I ask. "Where were you?"
"En la cafeteria," he responds, his inexplicable nickname for a doughnut shop about five minutes away.
As long as I can remember, my father has spent his Sunday mornings at JAX Donuts House, a run-down coffee house across the street from Anaheim City Hall. Gentrification, redevelopment, and changing demographics have yet to kill this eyesore: when Starbucks usurped JAX's original location, the owners moved a couple doors down, and its mostly Mexican clientele followed. The Cambodians who own the small store don't fry the best doughnuts (if you ever stop in, order the cinnamon roll and ask for a hell of a lot more frosting), yet thirty to forty middle-aged Mexican men regularly hang out there every weekend -- not to harass passing pickups for the chance to pound nails, but to live the good life. They're all men from Jerez, a city of about fifty-six thousand in the central-Mexican state of Zacatecas. More specifically, almost all of the men are from El Cargadero, the tiny village where my mother was born and whose migration to Anaheim captures the postmodern Mexican experience as well as anything.
But when these men meet, they don't chatter about politics or immigration reform. They gossip. "¡Chismean como viejas!" my mom has sighed numerous times. "They gossip like old ladies!" It's true: these burly machos, naturally light skin eternally sunburned due to years working outside, chatter almost exclusively about the goings-on in El Cargadero -- who's marrying whom, which son or daughter got in trouble or went off to college, stories of their childhood. That their Mexican hometown is now three-quarters empty doesn't bother anyone.
On this particular Sunday morning, my father discussed an upcoming trip to his native Jomulquillo, a village just south of El Cargadero. He's in charge of the comité Guadalupana, a group of people who live in the United States but raise funds for a celebration in Jomulquillo for the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12. For the past four years, my father and others have raised thousands of dollars just so a brass band can play for twenty-four continuous hours, a childhood tradition they fondly remember but which died for a time as Jomulquillo hemorrhaged its residents to el Norte.
"¿Quieres dar dinero?" he asked. "Do you want to give money?"
I forked over a $20 bill.
"¿Se acuerda lo que le dije?" I responded. "Do you remember what I told you?"
He agreed earlier in the week to answer questions for this book (gracias for reading it, by the way), but Papi's clothes suggested other plans. Of course he remembered, but there was grass to mow, palm trees to trim, roses to prune.
"Ven durante la semana pa' comer lonche -- entonces platicamos," he said while walking out the door toward the toolshed in our backyard. "Come by during the week to eat lunch -- then, we'll talk."
About a half hour later, my mom and brother arrived from the dentist. Gabriel -- showing off his immaculate 2006 Air Jordans -- is upset. "Where's my music?" he bellowed. I promised him hip-hop and oldies songs from my iTunes months ago, but the memory stick that allows me to bootleg went kaput, and I haven't been able to steal a new one from my friend.
"And where's my game?!" I borrowed Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas about a year ago, but killing cops to Hank Williams's "Hey, Good Lookin'" is too much fun so I always conveniently forget to return it. Gabriel pushes me away and plops onto the couch, immersing himself in the Los Angeles Times sports section as the Oakland Raiders are losing another close one. "Oh, did you see that one-handed catch by Jerry Porter?" he yells at one point. My brother, the man-child, never removes his sunglasses.
My mom sits next to us and begins darning socks. "You work too hard," she teases, her English better than my father's but still lacking considering she has spent the past forty-five years in los Estados Unidos.
"¿Dale una limpiesita a tu computadora, no?" she says, pointing at my ink-smeared MacBook. "Don't you want to clean your computer?" Even for a Sunday morning, Mami dresses like a businesswoman on Casual Friday -- sweater, dress pants, an earth-toned outfit nicely contrasting with her porcelain skin and coiffed hair.
My father barges in from outside. "Luz, hasme de comer," he commands. "Make me food to eat."
"Sí, Lorenzo," she says, in a tone that any casual observer could immediately deduce she has repeated thousands of times over a thirty-year marriage.
Mami grabs my copy of the New York Times Magazine and skims through it.
"Te 'sta dolienda tu mano," she says. "Your hand's hurting." Unconsciously, I was massaging a finger.
"Nomás the tip de mi dedo."
"Aver." She motions, grabbing my right index finger and examining its frayed cuticle. She tells me I'm cutting my nails too short, which means that the skin underneath the nail chafes against the keyboard.
"Baby," Gabriel snorts.
"¿Se acuerda lo que le dije?" I ask Mami.
Mom tries to beg off the interview, claiming she needs to travel to Costco and load up on groceries. Actually, she does: a Mexican family is a hungry family.
"Pues, okay," I reply. I check my e-mail. "FUCK YOU ILLEGAL ALIEN WETBACK SCUM BITCH," it rants. The Raiders score a touchdown. Alejandrina returns with a double soy latte, no foam, for my dad. Canaries chirp in the background.
Just another day for the Arellanos in America. Our heaven. Your hell?
Do me a favor, folks fretting about whether Mexicans will ever become Americanized -- fume about something else. Worthy choices: Al Qaeda. John McCain as president. The choking ways of the Chicago Cubs.
There's no real reason why what you just read and anything that follows relating to my personal life should ever have been published (reviewers: there's a pull quote for ustedes if ever there was one!). The immigrant saga, the coming-of-age rebel yell, the portrait of the artist as a young hombre -- the memoir portion of this book uses those clichés of American letters to tell its tale. But the sad beauty of this country is that we forget. We forget that dumb ethnics assimilate, that they share the goals and dreams of any Mayflower descendant. It takes a snot-nosed, presumptuous minority to kick the United States in its amnesiac britches every couple of years -- consider this your ass boot.
Self-important rant continues on page 13 -- but first, a word from our sponsor:
Take a flight into Orange County, from anywhere in the East, and witness our rise and fall. Select a window seat, preferably on the left side -- don't fly United, do fly Continental -- and sleep for a couple of hours until the deserts of the American Southwest transform into Southern California's drought-stricken Cleveland National Forest. The slight bump of the Santa Ana Mountains blesses its trees with the illusion of waves and peace. Serenity. But squint hard enough, and you might just see charred hillsides, remnants of the apocalyptic fires that cover Orange County in smog-fueled smoke every couple of years. Whoops -- watch out for turbulence!
The tranquillity of Orange County's last undeveloped woodlands quickly dissolves into reality. Soon, kidney-shaped housing developments dominate the landscape: blobs and blobs sidling up to the forest, spreading across hills and valleys. Though these communities lie as docile as sleeping puppies, the curves are too neat, too surgical. Unnatural. You notice the houses -- manorlike, most two stories, with Mission Style tiled roofs, the hard-earned equity of the county's upper-middle class. These preplanned palaces all look alike -- neat, danger-free. Yes: banal.
A roadway pops up -- that's State Route 241, the Foothill Toll Road, built just over a decade ago. It feeds into much larger arteries, streams of cars clogged in places, just slow in others. Farther away, you glimpse at the 55 Freeway, which connects commuters from those Stepford foothills to the Pacific Ocean. Although the airplane slowly descends, the houses actually become smaller. They're less ostentatious. The streets, however, continue to crawl over the land like varicose veins.
Soon, the enormity of Orange County greets you: It's a grid. Up and down, east and west, as far as you can see, the fifth most populous county in the Republic looks like a giant plaid shirt in industrial-park white and global-warming green. Unlike the terrain you just passed, this section bustles with architectural diversity -- strip malls, neighborhoods, the occasional five-story skyscraper. Before you stretch thousands of acres of the most fertile soil in America -- fifty years ago. Now? Mostly asphalt, the bounty of agriculture sacrificed for families seeking their slice of stuccoed tranquillity.
Non-native trees line boulevards, parks dot the vanilla vista. See that big slab of green in the middle of everything? That's Mile Square Regional Park, where Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1984 reelection before an audience of at least sixty-five thousand happy souls. Now? It's a good place to pick up a cheap blow job.
The airplane's wheels screech into landing position. You see more: cars, parking lots, office complexes. Few people on the sidewalks. You cross Interstate 5, the mighty 5, which connects America's Pacific states but is mostly known in Orange County for gridlock, always gridlock -- shite, why can't they build more freeways? Wait, we did. Well, what about the public transportation system? Don't the buses continue to display a massive medal decal claiming a government agency deemed it America's best public transportation system? Yep? So why does a fifteen-minute car trip last an hour and a half on a bus? What a crock -- where were we? Right -- Orange County is perfect!
Make sure the stewardess isn't looking and scoot over to the right side of the airplane -- lean over that fat, sleeping passenger if necessary. Look for Disneyland's Matterhorn -- it's easy to spot; it's the only white-capped anything round these parts that isn't a KKK hood. Nearby is the famous Big A of Angel Stadium, which houses the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (don't ask why they're called that, just yell at the owner). You'll cross the remnants of the Santa Ana River, the waterway once deemed the most dangerous river west of the Mississippi by the Army Corps of Engineers, now tamed to little more than a concrete gulch.
Slink back to your seat and look south again. More hills -- beyond them is South County, where moneyed people now flock to escape the urbanizing, minority-heavy north and central portions of Orange County. The far-off meadows look gorgeous, but more civilization creeps toward them every year. You might spot two historic blimp hangars that developers plan to tear down for retail. And the giant expanse of nothing? A former marine base that trained generations of Americans and welcomed Vietnamese refugees but now houses a hot-air balloon shaped like -- wait for it -- an orange!
More hills graded by bulldozers unfold, getting prepped for more developments. More houses leading toward Newport Beach, where parents buy children luxury cars for their fifteenth birthdays and plastic surgery for their eighteenth. Just below you is the 405 Freeway -- the fifth freeway passed in less than ten minutes.
Finally! The Pacific! On the horizon! But just as visions of a siliconed beauty swapping sand with you on our trash-strewn beaches enter your mind, a hard bump -- you've landed at John Wayne Airport, known in airport code as Santa Ana Airport (SNA), but called John Wayne by the natives because no one in Orange County dares identify anything reputable with a city that's 80 percent Mexican.
Welcome to the end of the West: Orange County, California, 789 of the most influential square miles in America. Fittingly, here to welcome you, just in front of where departing passengers pick up their luggage, is the Duke himself: John Wayne -- rather, a nine-foot statue of him. Stetson, boots, kerchief, vest, holster. He's looking down toward you, wearing a crack of a smile -- more Ringo Kid than Ethan Edwards. But the man born Marion Morrison isn't all pleasantries: Wayne's arm rests near a gun. Bullets are missing from his gun belt. A massive American flag hangs above.
Wayne was born in Iowa and raised in Glendale, California, but OC lore maintains that the county created the movie star. The story goes that the man born Marion Morrison forsook USC football for an acting career after sustaining a shoulder injury while body surfing at Newport Beach's notorious Wedge. Wayne spent his final years as the county's kind, crazy uncle, usually haunting bars in Newport Beach with his slurring, gentlemanly manners. But Orange County's custodians didn't care about Wayne the Orange County Resident -- they renamed the airport after his screen persona. A blurb on the airport's Web site lionizes Wayne the Statue as a "man of humility, of honesty, and a hero of the American West [who] was a symbol to the world of the traditional American values." The statue itself bears a brave message: JOHN WAYNE LEGENDARY AMERICAN. When the legend becomes sad fact, bronze the legend.
But few people stop to appreciate Wayne -- not the chubby tourists, they're all busy trying to wave down family members in the madness just outside. And not the dour Homeland Security personnel, the brown-skinned janitors and Asian shopkeepers. And so the man stands alone, a relic, a monument of Ozymandian excess.
This is how we do it in the OC, bitches. Or so the television show says -- I certainly never saw it. And don't call us that, por favor.
You really are in Paradise. Sunny most of the year, with only the occasional catastrophic earthquake. Right on the Pacific Ocean and free of a major port, which means the only pollution to worry about is the millions of gallons of partly treated sewage the local sanitation districts flush onto our beaches daily, and the recycled poo water they filter into our taps. The county's developers consistently leave thousands of acres of open space free from their cookie-cutter visions -- beautiful canyons and sagebrush-swept hills that house animals and various flora, perfect for hikes -- as long as we accept the thousands of houses they build everywhere else.
Orange County is just hours from desert, mountains, forests, Los Angeles, and Mexico, but you can find almost anything within the county's boundaries. Like multiculturalism? America's largest city with an all-Latino city council is here -- Santa Ana, the county seat, a place where whites stubbornly cling to their last neighborhoods and some hold Halloween on a separate day so that brown kids won't swarm their streets. The largest community of Vietnamese outside Vietnam lives in Little Saigon, where refugees continue to fight Ho Chi Minh. Muslims can enjoy Anaheim and Garden Grove, home to many mosques and much FBI monitoring. Chinese live in Irvine, which hosts a university that's part of the prestigious University of California system and that conservative bloggers call the most anti-Semitic campus in America. But don't bother stopping by OC (it's okay to call it that) if you're African-American -- we only have a couple of thousand, which make up about 2 percent of the county's population. They know better.
Rest assured, religiously inclined folks can find their type of holy rollin'. The kitschy go to the Trinity Broadcasting Network in Costa Mesa, the world's largest televangelism network, located within a Barry Bonds homer from South Coast Plaza, America's most prosperous mall (but don't call it a mall). Theological troglodytes worship at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, where the original Jesus Freaks, transformed by their baptisms in picturesque Corona Del Mar State Beach, began preaching the End Days. If you're compassionate and your bigotry is soft, drive down to Lake Forest and Saddleback Church, home for the mega-phenomenon called the Purpose-Driven Life®. Want to roll with Jesus in a Mercedes? Try the Crystal Cathedral, America's original purveyor of the prosperity gospel, where life-size statues of religious icons provide endless photo ops to awestruck tourists and simple Passion and Nativity plays turn into multimillion-dollar extravaganzas. Supporter of pedophiles? Our Roman Catholic diocese can accommodate your needs. Hate Mexicans? Hola -- that's the real county faith.
Beach bums of the world, unite! Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, San Clemente, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach -- all rightfully promote their endless waves, but don't bother looking for the playgrounds immortalized by the Beach Boys and other surf-rock gods: developers overpriced our coasts years ago, erecting seaside resorts where once existed trailer parks and nine-hole golf courses. They've yet to touch the real jewel, Trestles, just south of San Clemente at Orange County's southernmost tip, but hang ten there while you can -- county politicians want to extend that 241 toll road you flew over to trample through the purty place.
Queer? Hang out in Laguna Beach, which elected the country's first openly homosexual mayor way back when but is now rapidly gentrifying the gays, artists, and day laborers out of town. Tim Leary -- who started an international hippie mafia in Laguna's canyons -- must be rolling in his cosmic joint.
Your grandparents probably know about San Juan Capistrano, where the swallows returned every year as the old Ink Spots song once weeped, but must now look elsewhere to build their mud nests as that once rustic town continues to modernize. If you're young and can throw a football eighty yards while on your knees, the cities of Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita feature powerhouse prep squads whose kids annually earn Division I scholarships. If you can throw a football far and then dunk a basketball during the winter, you'll live in those cities but commute to Santa Ana to attend Mater Dei High School, a Catholic prep academy, which is the largest Catholic high school west of the Mississippi and employs statutory rapists the way Notre Dame once notched football championships.
Don't bother coming here if you're liberal -- Republicans rule everything, from the courts to the sheriff's office to the Board of Supervisors and the district attorney's office. We're so conservative, the only way a Republican beat Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist in a 2006 congressional race was by calling him a communist -- seriously! A communist! There's a reason Reagan once said we're the place where "all the good Republicans go to die," and it ain't because of our hometown boy Adam Gadahn, Al Qaeda's token American terrorist.
If you're just a dull person, we have many cities with little history, little anything other than peace of mind and overpriced homes -- La Palma, Foothill Ranch, Aliso Viejo, and the Little Lagunas: Niguel, Woods, and Hills. Anaheim has historically lapped up much of the national recognition earned by Orange County -- the Ducks, Angels, and Disneyland are here -- but the true economic powerhouse is Irvine, home to multinationals such as Blizzard Entertainment (makers of World of Warcraft) and Taco Bell. Country-lovin' folks will enjoy the canyon communities -- Modjeska, Santiago, and Williams canyons are particularly pretty all year. Just be on the lookout for mudslides, m'kay? Stay away from Stanton, our eternal joke: it first incorporated in 1911 so -- I kid you not -- other cities didn't turn it into a sewage dump.
A geezer? Live in either of our Leisure Worlds -- we created those before Dennis Hopper ever discovered Ameriprise. And if you're that old standby, the middle class? Tough luck -- it doesn't exist anymore. The subprime mortgage scandal of 2007? Mostly started here.
Orange County is postsuburbia: thirty-four distinct cities of various sizes but none dominating over the rest. Yet each interconnects to create a petri dish for America's continuing democratic experiment.
Back from commercial, continued from page 6:
In the past couple of years, my homeland has emerged as an exaggerated, much talked-about microcosm of the United States. The hype is right: Orange County is the Ellis Island of the twenty-first century. What we've experienced in our century-and-change of official existence is coming to your town, if it's not there already. And the primary lesson Orange County can teach you is my family's four-generation journey -- the Mexican invasion.
But first a history lesson, and history in the United States always begins with the Europeans. Orange County is no different. Yes, we had our Injuns -- the Tongvas in the northern section, Acjachemen down south (Americans call them Gabrieleños and Juaneños, respectively, after the Spanish mission that tamed the tribes) -- but the U.S. government doesn't list our Indians as officially recognized tribes, so I'm ignoring them, too.
Orange County, as we understand it, originated just a bit south of Orange County, in a serene stretch of wilderness near what is now Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. There stands a small, weed-choked plaque stating, "Near this spring the first Christian baptism in Alta California was performed by Padre Francisco Gomez."
On July 22, 1769, about 150 Spaniards and their mules trudged north through what was then called Alta California at the request of Father Junípero Serra. Serra had just established the first of California's twenty-one famed missions in San Diego. But the padre wanted more -- he ordered Don Gaspar de Portolà to trek north ahead of him and explore the virgin country.
Just like his superior, Portolà sent a scout ahead of him: José Francisco Ortega. The two reunited in a village of about fifty Indians near the site of the above-mentioned spring. The natives presented Portolà and his party with two girls. They were sick, and the Indians asked the Spaniards to heal them.
Instead, Portolà told the priests to baptize the girls -- christened Maria Magdalena and Margarita -- in the name of Jesus and the Spanish crown. "We did not doubt that both would die and go to heaven," wrote Father Juan Crespi, who also accompanied Portolà, in his diaries. "With this, the only success that we have obtained, we fathers consider it well worth while the long journey and the hardships that are being suffered in it and that are still awaiting us. May it all be for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls."
For decades, wealthy Orange County men reenacted Portolà's trek through the county in a ritual that was half-Boy Scout, half-historical appreciation, and all cheese. Cristianitos ("Little Christians") Road, the closest road to this landmark, is named after the girls. Ortega earned a road, too: Ortega Highway, one of the more treacherous lengths of Southern California, a place where murderers frequently dump bodies. Fitting. Most of South County is named in Spanish -- the cities, streets, and schools -- in honor of these men and their Age of Discovery. Too bad the residents' cities don't honor the conquistadors' descendants the same way...but we digress.
Shortly after Portolà's expedition, Serra established Mission San Juan Capistrano just north of Cristianitos Creek. Until Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, Orange County was the mission, a couple of renegade Indian villages, and little else. After the Mexican government took control, officials divided the county into ranchos to reward military officers. The Californios -- as these scions of Spain called themselves -- went on to raise thousands-head herds of cattle, among the largest in the world at that time.
But not until 1840 did Orange County enter American letters, courtesy of Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of the maritime memoir Two Years before the Mast. The New Englander's time in the county was minimal -- just caught a couple of tanned cowhides thrown down the cliffs of what's now Dana Point by mission peons. Nevertheless, Dana was so impressed with Orange County that he deemed San Juan Capistrano "the only romantic spot on the [Pacific] coast," a fact repeated in nearly every history of Orange County and reiterated here for obligatory purposes. When the Gold Rush hit California in 1849, thousands of miners came, many clutching a copy of Dana's tome as a guide. To this day, schoolchildren get bused from across Southern California to glimpse the Pilgrim, a replica of the boat Dana sailed on. (The docents never mention his Mexican-bashing, but again -- we digress.)
The Gold Rush ended Orange County's Californio days -- that, and devastating droughts and floods that cursed the region during the 1850s. Unscrupulous Americans -- immigrants! -- claimed the ranchos as their own and litigated many Californios into bankruptcy. These Americans tried playing ranch boss for a couple of years, but Orange County didn't see the rise of white communities until 1859, when a group of Germans from San Francisco purchased one hundred acres to create a socialist grape-growing commune named Anaheim in the county's first bilingual conflation (heim is German for "home," and the Ana refers to the Santa Ana River).
More towns followed. Santa Ana, Orange, and Fullerton are among the oldest, while others such as Newhope, Olive, and Paularino now only exist as street names. As more towns popped up, residents voted to secede from Los Angeles and create Orange County in 1889. Outsiders and even most residents assume the name describes the bounty of orange groves that first earned the county its wealth, but that tale is more of an urban legend based on a lie. As the county's historian emeritus Jim Sleeper put it, "The organizers of Orange County chose that name for the sordid purpose of real estate. 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." Indeed, orchards were just sprouting around central Orange County when the county incorporated, but the promise of orange blossoms was enough for speculators to sell settlers from across the United States on communities that hadn't yet seen sawdust.
For about seventy-five years, this was Orange County -- a cornucopia where sugar beets, lima beans, avocados, but mostly citrus groves made a few farmers rich and kept towns small and rural. Interviews with old-timers have them remembering the days when they heard the crash of ocean waves in Fullerton, about twenty miles inland, at night. There was little in the sense of a county identity other than as a seller of its produce to a hungry nation.
World War II introduced the twentieth century to this pastoral. The U.S. military annexed tens of thousands of acres of farmland, creating an air force base in Los Alamitos, the aforementioned blimp hangars in Tustin, and an army air base in Costa Mesa; the marines constructed an air base in El Toro near the heart of the county; and the navy opened a weapons station in Seal Beach. Hundreds of thousands of Americans passed through Orange County on their way to the Pacific theater. The mild temperatures and untapped potential enticed GIs to stay after they smashed the Japs, and farmers paved over their fruit trees and fields for the cash crop of tract houses.
This post-WWII population boom transformed Orange County from vast nothingness into hyper-suburbia. In 1940, 130,760 people lived in Orange County; by 1950, 216,224 were here. The population increased to 703,925 ten years later; 1,420,386 was the census count for 1970. Cities incorporated quickly, creating makeshift municipalities in a region a bit over a century old.
Disneyland opened its gates in 1958, introducing the country to a radically transformed Orange County, one governed not by farmland tranquillity but Progress. Aerospace giants -- Rockwell, Lockheed Martin (partially named after Orange County native Glenn Martin), and Boeing opened factories that employed thousands. The county gained two state universities -- California State University, Fullerton (originally known as Orange County State College), and the University of California, Irvine. The latter was the focal point of a new plan to introduce master-planned communities in the county's southern regions, where ranchers still herded cattle and the living had changed little after two centuries.
The county needed a vision, a philosophy to foster a sense of shared identity between the old-timers and newbies. Enter conservatism. Quickly, Orange County became nationally notorious for its right-wingers, ardent housewives and blue-collar husbands who wanted the United States out of the United Nations and God-fearing men in office. When local boy Richard Nixon -- born at the upper northeast extreme of the county in Yorba Linda to Quaker parents -- spoke of a Southern strategy, it was code for attracting the county's voters and their fellow suburbanites.
But as Nixon rose and fell, his homeland further evolved. The Vietnam War brought hundreds of thousands of refugees to El Toro and Camp Pendleton. Despite efforts by the government to disperse the Vietnamese, many of them settled in central Orange County and re-created Indochina as best they could, much to the chagrin of the other residents. But it wasn't just Vietnamese who were overrunning OC: Muslims, Koreans, Chinese, and refugees from the Soviet bloc also swooped in. And the most dramatic demographic rise involved Latinos, who had stayed in segregated barrios well into the 1960s.
Even as Orange County expanded and exhibited more signs of losing its backwater reputation through the 1980s -- a performing arts center, luxury resorts in South County, a football team with the Los Angeles Rams -- residents bemoaned the loss of their dreamland. Many of the county's aerospace factories started shutting down in the early 1990s, and the marines announced plans in 1993 to leave El Toro for civilian use by the end of the decade. And shock gripped God's People when Orange County -- the Promised Land! -- declared bankruptcy in 1994, the largest local government default in American history.
Even more stinging, however, was the 1996 election of Loretta Sanchez -- a Mexican woman Democrat, the three most egregious OC sins, in that order -- to a congressional seat. Sanchez's victory over incumbent Bob Dornan sent shock waves up to Congress, where Dornan demanded the Republican-dominated House investigate his claims that illegal Mexicans had handed him defeat.
White people began moving away, and ethnics transformed the petit bourgeois strongholds of Orange County -- Central and North -- into postmodern ethnic enclaves. Privatized freeways -- a first in the United States -- sprung up to serve the new communities that burrowed their way into South County's last open spaces.
It took two bands -- Anaheim's peppy No Doubt and the political hard-rock Rage Against the Machine, fronted by Irvine resident Zack de la Rocha -- to rehabilitate Orange County in the mind of mainstream America. Though No Doubt's and RATM's focus was on rebelling against their staid homeland, the rest of the country interpreted their melodic warnings to mean coolness was bubbling in the land of milk and Mickey. Soon came more bands, television shows, movies, clothing lines. Celebrities and the nouveau riche started buying second homes along the coast or in South County. By the start of the new millennium, Orange County was becoming what USA Today memorably, lamely called "America's Capital of Cool," the place where rich, young people partied and made beaucoup bucks. The Angels won the 2002 World Series, allowing sports fans to see this new Orange County. Finally! there was a civic identity that didn't involve people distinguishing us from Los Angeles. To say one was from la naranja now carried a certain hip cachet. Then, the Minuteman Project came along to remind the world about our rotting core.
And today? The houses keep rising, although there's little room left except skyward. The sleepy towns are now a mess of 3 million souls -- if Orange County incorporated as a city, its population would trail only that of New York and Los Angeles. The Republicans still rule, but consistently shoot themselves in the foot and might permanently lose power within a generation. Whites still live here, but now number less than half of the county's residents, with Latinos making up a third and Asians almost 20 percent. It's projected that Latinos will be the majority of county residents in thirty years, an inconceivable thought even a decade ago. In Orange County!
The Indians? They're still around, although split into feuding factions and having to fend off attacks from the Catholic Church and politicians who want to deny them the chance to open a casino. Orange groves? Less than one hundred acres. Just this past summer, San Juan Capistrano officials booted an eighty-four-year-old Mexican man who had tended forty acres of orange trees for the past thirty-eight years so that the city could construct a maintenance yard. Time doesn't care for the past in Orange County -- booms and busts go fast, and today's trends become tomorrow's latest built-over shopping plaza.
Thus concludes my history of Orange County, at least the short version. I doubt you want to read about the minutiae of our mega-burb -- how Katella Avenue, one of the county's main roads, is named for Kate and Ella, the daughters of a prominent Anaheim farmer. That the Yorba family was one of Orange County's most important early settlers. And what about the ancient legend that the reason the Angels didn't win for decades was because their stadium was built on an Indian burial ground? Too bad that story is baloney; Anaheim Stadium was actually built on an old orange grove, a grove where my uncle gathered naranjas as a twelve-year-old -- but I digress yet again. All good trivia -- but hardly reason enough to read my book, ¿qué no?
Municipal histories are fascinating mostly to those who live there; the public at large demands a connection, a reason to read about a place far away. With that in mind, I present to you the Orange County that witnesses, initiates, and fosters movements that transcend our borders and influence the arc of American life -- even the world. Hell, there's even an Orange County in China modeled after us. The fact that commies look upon Orange County as an ideal for good living indicates that something about my homeland is weird and vital.
Our conservatives, our churches, our "real" housewives, anti-immigrant fools, and captains of avarice -- all are mini-manias for major swaths of the country. So we've notched the television shows, muchos articles, increased tourism, even a Jack Black flick -- but never a serious book outside academia's necessary-but-boring realm. Nothing has exposed Orange County in its unadulterated, bizarre, fascinating whole -- until now (sorry, Meet The OC Superstars: The Official Biography! doesn't count).
Oh, local historians have regaled readers with tales of pioneers and the halcyon days when the John Birch Society reigned and the county smelled like a giant can of Tropicana. But the victors write history, goes the aphorism, and nowhere is that more true than in Orange County. Local histories follow a tight OC Story, positivist in predestined steps and outcome. Good for retirees, terrible for the macro view. We don't care for the fact -- we print the legend. Meanwhile, American historians have long dismissed the county as America's fundamentalist wild, reviled as the place that spawned Nixon, ridiculed for the perfection that drew so many to find lives of leisure. We're historical ether -- invisible but dangerous.
My family has witnessed the transformation of Orange County from a place where segregation forced my great-grandfather and grandfather to flee for their lives from flying potatoes, to a society in which my mother had to drop out of school in ninth grade to pick strawberries, to a phenomenon that has fostered my strange existence. I'm getting paid mucho dinero by a New York publishing company to present a life experience and county history which is crucial to understanding America to readers who might not want to believe it. Believe it. Families like mine are integral to this equation in that we qualify as old-timers and as the county's perpetual outsiders at the same time. And we are this country's newfound menace. We are natives; we are the ruin. We are the Zeligs, participating in or weathering many of the county's crucial moments, partners in the forging of this Brave New America, one that extends all the way to two tiny mountain villages in central Mexico.
The structure of this book is simple -- chapters alternate between my family's binational trek and my memoir with the county's history, and one complements the other. Sprinkled throughout are blurbs that explain Orange County's cities and major points of interest -- consider them the jalapeños on the nachos. Read this book as a guide to the past and a manual for the future. As Orange County goes, so goes my family, and as my family has traversed through a century of assimilation and resistance, so will the United States -- not the easiest of transitions, but always moving forward. Toward the fruit of knowledge -- not an apple, but an orange. Picked by a Mexican, of course.
Copyright © 2008 by Gustavo Arellano

Table of Contents

Introduction: This Is How We Do It in the OC (Don't Call It That)

Flying Potatoes, Anchor Babies, and Kidnapped Teen Brides: The Mirandas Go North

"Our Climate Is Faultless": Constructing America's Perpetual Eden

His Fake Green Card, Her Tomato Packing

Where All the Good Idiot Republicans Go to Die

The Philadelphia Story

Gimme That OC Religion

Genesis and the Stetson

The Beaner-Bashing Capital of America

My Mexican Awakening

The "Real" Real Orange County Reel, or: About Those Stupid Television Shows, Why Orange County Is "Hip," and What's Really Real and What's Somewhat Real — for Real

Becoming "The Mexican"

Insert Concluding Orange Cliché Here


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Orange County: A Personal History 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Goes to jail......
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Balloons_Over_America More than 1 year ago
Just as Tucker Carlson's "Head Butting" ways were seen as detrimental to the progress of news t.v. so will go "Big Gus." It seems Tucker was an outright appendage of the Bush Self Destruction Program, then people got almost wise and tried to dispense with the Bush administration altogether and in there haste they pushed too Far the other Direction "The Pendulum Swings" They voted in the first black president (Moron) that wants to make it easier for criminals to kill law abiding citizens (Gun Laws), Blames the Mexican Civil War (mexican brother killing brother for a Dollar Bill) on White Americans, and Says it's O.K. for Arabs to kill jews. What else is there? There is little ole "Big Gus" he is the mirror image of Tucker Carlson in Bizarro world. Big Gus likes to describe America as a "Pinata" hanging over the head of Mexico. All the Mexicans have to do is beat it (My Beloved U.S.) with a stick, and good things come out of it. In a Nutshell Gustavo Arellano is a Race Baiting Liberal (oxymoron), if there is such a thing. I've sent him an e-mail telling him the same thing, he called me hilarious but had no excuse for his actions. Probably because there is no excuse. As an American all we can do is wait for the pendulum to quit swinging out of balance and find a happy medium and Gustavo Arellano is not it, he is merely a barometer as to how messed up our country is right now.