Finding Ourselves in the Groves: Stories and Storytellers of Citrus in Inland Southern California

Finding Ourselves in the Groves introduction panel

Finding Ourselves in the Groves features portraits of people who have shaped the citrus landscape of Inland Southern California, and whose stories of labor, migration, and immigration continue to resonate today. The contributions of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds recounted here, including the often-overlooked involvement of women and children, chart a social and cultural genealogy—a family tree—of citrus in the region. They help us connect people to place. They also show how the citrus landscape has been constructed by laboring hands and minds, industrial and technological developments, and public policies about race, immigration, and segregation.

The exhibition represents people from long ago as well as today. These include “storytellers” who preserve histories of race and place, and new migrants and immigrants who continue the struggles of earlier generations for equity and rights. Their oral histories and photographs, drawn from family collections and local archives in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, animate Finding Ourselves in the Groves. They inspire the questions at the heart of this exhibition. What makes community? How do ideas about belonging and citizenship change? How are our experiences of migration and immigration interwoven and inscribed on California’s citrus landscape? Finding Ourselves in the Groves invites you to share both your stories of the past and your ideas for how California’s story ought to play out in the future.11 Finding Ourselves in the Groves is part of the Relevancy and History Project partnership between the University of California, Riverside, and California State Parks. The pilot project at California Citrus State Historic Park focuses on migration and immigration and includes new research, partnerships, student participation, community story collection, site-based installations, and outreach events.

Exibition panel

Budding Landscapes: African Americans in Citrus

Many African American settlers to Inland Southern California in the 1870s and 1880s started out as manual laborers and became independent grove owners and respected arborists. Israel Beal found ample work hauling lumber and cement and digging irrigation ditches alongside local Native Americans when he arrived in the San Bernardino valley in 1870. Soon he bought his first twenty acres of land for $250 in northern Redlands. He eventually prospered as a grove owner himself, although he continued to work as a teamster and laborer.

John B. Adams helped graft the first navel oranges, upon which the region’s citrus wealth was built. David and Oscar Stokes planted trees at the Citrus Experiment Station (later University of California, Riverside), which enabled crucial scientific research. All contributed their labor and knowledge to build the region’s citrus industry.

Single and Segregated

The groves illustrate a recurring pattern in U.S. history regarding how immigration policy is guided by economics, racial politics, and changing ideas about citizenship. Chinese men became an indispensable work force in the first decades of Western rail, canal, and citrus industry development. Yet soon thereafter the first U.S. laws restricting immigration were directed at the same group. Later the California Alien Land Law of 1913 forbade land ownership by “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” thus excluding Asians (and especially targeting prominent populations of Japanese and Sikhs) from buying the land on which they worked.

Mexican agricultural workers filled the void, migrating without limits in the 1920s, even as quotas severely restricted immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe and barred most immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But as jobs disappeared during the Great Depression, California state officials rounded up people of Mexican heritage, including some U.S. citizens, and systematically deported them. At the same time, federal officials ruled unlawful return a felony and unauthorized border crossing a misdemeanor, subject to fines, imprisonment, and deportation.

During World War II when labor was again needed, more than 80% of the pickers in California’s citrus industry came from Mexico. These single men (they could not bring their families) participated in the guest worker agreement between the U.S. and Mexico known as the Bracero Program (1942-1964). The program’s scant regulation of labor conditions, pay, and housing gave a competitive advantage to citrus growers striving to keep their costs low even as it was criticized by unions, churches, and some participants. For many braceros, including Luis Barozio Ceja from Michoacán, Mexico, the experience was bittersweet. At first, he was warmly welcomed to fill wartime labor shortages in Corona (near Riverside). Later he and other braceros were perceived as threats both by American labor organizations and established Mexican American communities.

Women’s Work

Since the late 1890s packing citrus has been women’s work. Promoted by Redlands Chamber of Commerce in 1906 as “light and pleasant work,” most women instead experienced the same assembly-line conditions as in Eastern factories: long hours, repetitive movement, relentless pace, and few guarantees regarding pay. Yet the packinghouse was also where women created community. Women were known to organize strikes. They also formed mutual-aid associations, such as Mexican mutualista societies, which pooled resources, helped those in need, and advocated for worker’s rights. These social networks made adaptation possible to the hard conditions of citrus work and life, particularly for migrant and immigrant women with the double burden of earning income and caring for home and family.

In the 1990s, women workers at several of the largest lemon packing companies in California won sexual discrimination cases charging unequal access to the same hours, jobs, and pay as men. Despite this, women (mostly Latinas) still grade and pack citrus while men (mostly Latinos) do the handwork of picking fruit. Today the jobs themselves are disappearing, as workers are replaced by digital tools and mechanization in citrus sorting and packing.

Child’s Play

From lighting smudge pots to picking low-hanging fruit, citrus was never really child’s play. It was required labor for families in which everyone needed to work and when educational opportunities remained unequal. Students from Sherman Institute, a federal Indian boarding school in Riverside, for instance, spent long days hard at work at nearby Fontana Farms and Riverside Orange Company. Yet some also experienced the groves as a place of escape after hours, a welcomed relief from the military-styled regimentation of daily life at the boarding school.

Likewise, former ratas (boys who scurried beneath the trees to collect fallen fruit, nicknamed “rats”) and other youth describe “snowball” fights with rotted oranges. These playful moments became increasingly rare as children matured into more demanding jobs, taking them out of their classrooms at various times of year. Many remember being summoned by siren to light smudge pots when temperatures dropped low enough to freeze crops. This messy work blackened clothes (and just about everything else) and made children late for school. Today, many local residents still recall the difficult but adventurous time spent as youth in and around the groves.

Sweet and Sour: Stories and Storytellers Today

California Citrus State Historic Park is on land that Cahuilla, Luiseño, Serrano, and Tongva/Gabrieliño still call home. Native Americans in California continue to thrive despite the cultural upheavals and high rates of mortality resulting from Spanish, Mexican, and American occupation. Yet citrus is a powerful emblem of the changes wrought upon the land and its first peoples. Franciscan missionaries first brought orange trees to California. This water- and labor-intensive crop became part of the large-scale ranches and European-styled agricultural methods that displaced Native Americans, altered the precolonial cultural landscape, and disrupted the indigenous subsistence economy. In the aftermath, Native Americans toiled to construct irrigation canals and as citrus-related laborers. Some also gained sustenance from orchards they planted.

The land occupied by California Citrus State Historic Park reveals the contours of indigenous migratory routes connecting desert to sea. From almost anywhere in the park, one sees mountains used to narrate Native American creation stories. Sacred canyon sites nearby mark the solstice. So, while the Historic Park commemorates the citrus industry, it also connects us to times and traditions well beyond the specific advent of these particular groves.

The sweet smell of orange blossoms at the park in spring, for instance, transported recent Afghani visitors to memories of their home before war, when a variety of citrus flourished in Afghanistan. Another visitor who spotted the sour kalamansi (calamondin) fruit ripening in the park’s varietal grove recounted her Filipino grandparents’ recipes. Others reflected on etrog (citron) used during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, and various kinds of citrus used to signify good luck and prosperity during Chinese New Year. Savoring the sweet and sour stories of the California past links us to myriad world populations in sometimes unseen ways. Preserving California’s multifaceted and diverse citrus history also allows us to reckon together with the opportunities and challenges of global migrations—of people, natural resources, and cultural traditions.