East Highlands: Growing Up in a Citrus Community

Citrus shaped much more than just labor in the towns that grew up around the groves. Villages like East Highlands, located in San Bernardino County, grew in the first half of the twentieth century as extended families and friends settled in the same neighborhoods for the steady employment found in the fields, packing houses, and transportation industries that surrounded the workers’ neighborhood. By the 1950s and 1960s, the children of East Highlands grew up surrounded by their extended families, often living, working, and attending school with the same people for decades.

A citrus label from East Highlands Citrus Association, which employed many of the residents of East Highlands

A citrus label from East Highlands Citrus Association, which employed many of the residents of East Highlands.

“Highland Grove,” Citrus Label Collection. Retrieved from the Pomona Public Library

East Highlands, like other citrus communities, exhibited a strong sense of community among laborers and their families. Children roamed freely in the streets of their close-knit neighborhood, never far from a watchful eye or familiar face. If a parent wanted to call her or his child home, a message could be passed down from house to house until the child in question was located and sent home.

The generational divisions which shaped social cliques among laborers in the groves also extended to the community at large. Children learned early on about the importance of showing respect to their elders. Adults emphasized the importance of work ethic and education to the youth in the village so that younger generations could pursue lives and careers beyond the citrus groves.

“What was the community like in East Highlands?”

Former ratas, Gary Lemos and Steve Reyes, describe the neighborhood they grew up in.

Gary Lemos, Steve Reyes, and Lupe Perez, Interview by Mayela Caro, Marissa Friedman, and Sarah Junod, Highland, California, February 15, 2017.


Growing up in a citrus community even shaped the way children played. Kids used old packing crates and hand-trucks from the groves and packing houses to make their own toys, such as skates or carts that could be raced down the sides of the local hills.

Children who worked in the groves might also have “snowball fights” with fallen oranges during their lunch breaks, join in with the work songs and chants laborers sang to pass the time or to regulate the speed of their labor, and participate in the jokes and pranks laborers played on each other in the fields.

“What games did children play?

Steve Reyes and Gary Lemos recall making games out of citrus packing materials.

Gary Lemos, Steve Reyes, and Lupe Perez, Interview by Mayela  Caro, Marissa Friedman, and Sarah Junod, Highland, California, February 15, 2017.

Many children in East Highlands joined their parents and older siblings at work in the citrus fields in the early morning. Some children were up before dawn to work for a few hours in the groves as “ratas,” or assistant pickers, who collected fruit from the lower tree branches to supplement their parents’ wages. Others awoke as early as midnight to wait out in the fields during the winter, waiting to see if temperatures would drop low enough for them to light smudge pots (oil-fueled fires that would create a thick blanket of smoke to keep frost from harming the citrus fruits). Steve Reyes, who grew up in East Highlands, recalled having to run home covered in soot to wash up before school in the mornings. Sometimes he and his friends did not have time to clean up before class began, so they would have to shower at the school facilities. Fortunately for children like Steve, teachers knew that their kids had been at work long before they arrived at school, and accommodated the demands of their students’ labor.

Some children, when they became teenagers, were forced to leave school to support their families by working full time, or for part of the day if their school issued them work permits. For others, school offered children a means of avoiding field labor. One man who grew up in East Highlands recalled jumping at the chance to do summer school rather than work in the groves. By the time he became a high school senior, he had taken so many summer courses that he only needed two more to graduate!

School, however, was also one of the places where the Mexican-American children in East Highlands felt the most vulnerable to racism. Prior to World War II, segregated education was the norm in citrus communities like East Highlands. Even after the integration of local schools, Latino children found themselves confronted with racism and ethnic slurs like “dirty Mexican.” Residents of East Highlands who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s recalled that these prejudices mostly came from students who did not grow up in the pickers’ village. The white and Latino families who had lived and labored alongside each other for generations tended to treat each other with kindness, remembers Lupe Perez, but the kids who lived in the distinctly white area known in the village as “White Street” did not. Highlands, like other citrus towns, reflected the discriminatory practices and segregation which kept white and non-white residents separated at work, at school, and at home.

“Did you experience racism in East Highlands when you were a kid?”

Mexican and Mexican American children experienced racism in school.

Gary Lemos, Steve Reyes, and Lupe Perez, Interview by Mayela  Caro, Marissa Friedman, and Sarah Junod, Highland, California, February 15, 2017.

Inequalities between the white and Mexican-American neighborhoods intruded into children’s lives in other, less explicit ways as well. White communities received better economic resources and city infrastructure. The only paved sidewalk, for example, was located in the white area. When children wanted to cross the creek that runs through East Highlands, they would either have to climb through the water or go over boards laid across by their fathers. In the meantime, they could take their bikes up to “White Street” and ride them back and forth across the nice stone bridge up there.

The community and deep friendships formed by the children of East Highlands continue to shape life in the village to this very day. Many of these children graduated together, were in each others’ weddings, and stood as godparents to children of their own. Decades after the citrus industry died away, the love and friendship that defined this community remain.