From Citrus to Logistics is an outdoor exhibit installed in the amphitheater adjacent to the Sunkist Center at the California Citrus State Historic Park.
The lush landscape around California Citrus State Historic Park belies all that takes place behind the scenes for citrus to flourish. Land that sustained Native Americans for thousands of years was transformed to serve a single crop that required large quantities of water, pesticides, and smog-producing devices to be profitable. Waves of immigrants and migrants were exploited to keep wages low and production high, especially during harvest season.
Not everyone enjoyed the fruits of the labor required to create productive citrus landscapes. British investors helped develop the area where the Park is located today as a citrus ranch in the 19th century. They invested funds to take control of the most essential elements of industry: water, labor, and land. They built the canal that still irrigates the groves today and operated work camps nearby. The camps’ segregated dormitories were close to neighboring Mexican citrus communities (called colonias) that were taking shape.
Grove owners formed cooperatives, such as the Southern California Fruit Exchange, which began in 1893 and later became Sunkist, as a way to control costs and distribution. This granted power to increasingly large business interests. Workers also organized, to fight for unions and human rights to better working conditions and a fair wage. Today, the citrus industry has largely moved to the Central and Imperial Valleys and massive logistics warehouses have replaced the groves in Inland Southern California. However, workers in both industries face many of the same challenges and address them through multiracial coalition building and organizing that connects labor and environment, and advocates for people over profits.
Cultivating the Fantasy
During the first half of the 20th century, Anglo promoters and citrus producers romanticized California’s colonial Spanish heritage to market their cities and products. Images of mission bells, benevolent padres, festive fandangos, and red-tiled roofs promoted a mythologized view of the Spanish Era and mission system in California. Left out of this picture were the Native Americans violently removed from their land and forced into labor to build the missions and the agricultural systems brought by missionaries and settlers, including crops like oranges.
The mission system resulted in the death and displacement of innumerable California Indians. Yet when Californians set out to prove to the world that the state had history—like the Puritans at Plymouth Rock—they chose a whitewashed version of this story. They erased the Mexican past and early American statehood, when Native people were stripped of civil rights and enslaved for their labor. Promoters of California handpicked elements from the past to fabricate what we now call “Spanish fantasy heritage.” The profusion of buildings, advertisements, and landmarks of this false history re-installed in public places emblems of the racial terror Native people experienced.
Camps and Colonias
In 1895, Riverside was promoted as the wealthiest city in the nation per capita, largely due to citrus spurring regional development. Dubbed the “Orange Empire” for the ways that English investors financed the development of irrigation canals and large-scale citrus “plantations,” the imperial name serves to highlight how water, land, and labor were colonized. The increased value of citrus expedited settlement of Native lands, while the labor-intensive industry demanded a steady flow of migrant and immigrant labor.
Yet the multiracial labor force forged a community in the face of racial exclusions. In Riverside, dirt-floor bunkhouses for Chinese railroad workers—near the groves and packinghouses—became housing for subsequent Japanese and Korean ethnic enclaves, later replaced by Mexican families after the Japanese were forcibly removed during World War II. In San Bernardino, African Americans who began by clearing the land for citrus eventually became grove owners and civic leaders.
In the 1910s and 1920s, some big citrus owners built on-site dormitories in a short-lived response to state and federal criticism of poor housing conditions for immigrants. Lean-tos, shacks, and modest bungalows were more the norm, housing that by 1940 would be an almost entirely Mexican American citrus labor force. These picker communities were called colonias. Then, as now, they were marginalized and segregated from the white dominant community, but forged their own cultural connections through mutual associations, churches, community celebrations, and festivals.
Sweet and Sour Citrus
In 1928, sales of Sunkist orange juice were second only to Coca-Cola, despite the fact that Americans had barely ever had “an orange in a glass” a dozen years earlier. It was possible through branding, and the collective might of growers who came together in 1893 as Southern California Fruit Exchange to gain control over an unruly marketplace. They shared packinghouses, standardized grading systems, and stabilized prices. With slogans like “Citrus for Health, California for Wealth,” they branded themselves as Sunkist (a play on sun-kissed) and smothered the nation in ads that reinforced the mythology of citrus as “nature’s bounty.”
This was a far cry from the truth of corporate industrialized production, or citrus “factories in the field.” To decrease costs and increase production and sales, the Exchange relied upon a steady supply of easily exploitable migrant and immigrant labor and near monopolistic control. Workers, sometimes with the help of larger unions, would periodically fight for fair wages and better working conditions, especially in the 1930s when California led the nation in agriculture strikes. Though citrus workers made modest gains between World War I and World War II, they never fully unionized due to violent repression, inadequate labor laws, and ultimately, the federal implementation of the U.S.–Mexico guest worker agreement known as the “Bracero Program” (1942–1964). After the Bracero Program ended, many growers still relied on an inflow of now “illegal” workers from Mexico, who remained the backbone of the workforce.
From the Orange Empire to the Empire of Logistics
A century after land had been cleared for citrus, the Orange Empire lost its groves. In the 1940s and 50s, millions of trees were uprooted as the only way to stem the rapid spread of “quick decline” (tristeza virus). The adoption of large-scale commercial citrus production as a monoculture quickened its spread. This prepared the way for more lucrative use of subdividing grove property for suburban development in the 1950s and 60s. Today, those homes and the last citrus groves are surrounded by the largest employers in Inland Southern California, mega-logistics centers for Amazon, Walmart, and Target, among others.
The logistics industry is built on the same foundations as citrus. Both rely upon expedited delivery via rail and highways, a low-waged, temporary labor force, and weak environmental protections. Comparisons between the two empires, from citrus to logistics, reveal striking continuities, especially in terms of their unequal impacts on Indigenous and other people of color.
The environmental impacts of both are widespread: diesel burned to warm citrus during a winter freeze was notorious for the smog and soot it left behind. Today, communities fight to reduce the diesel exhaust from delivery trucks and trains moving through and idling in their neighborhoods. Similar issues of labor prevail, too. As citrus workers struggled to pick as fast as they could, so too do warehouse workers–also called pickers. Today, movement building in the “empire of logistics” is carried out by descendants of the “orange empire,” who advocate for clean air and a living wage.