From Citrus to Logistics: Centuries of Labor

From Citrus to Logistics is an outdoor exhibit installed in the amphitheater adjacent to the Sunkist Center at the California Citrus State Historic Park.

Color photograph of citrus workers strike with many assembled waving flags

Pickers strike at Wonderful Citrus, Delano, Calif., 2019.

United Farm Workers of America.

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.

Three workers in side the metal flume of the Gage Canal

The Canals

Taken less than a quarter mile from the Park, this 1913 photograph shows laborers tightening joints and adjusting plates on the steel flume that replaced the original wood structure at Mockingbird Canyon Dam on the Gage Canal. Many of the region’s original irrigation canals were built by Chinese and Native American laborers in the 1870s and 1880s. This canal doubled the land available for citrus cultivation. Many of Riverside’s surviving citrus groves, including those here at California Citrus State Historic Park, continue to draw their water from the Gage Canal.

Construction of steel flume, Mockingbird Dam, Gage Canal, Riverside, Calif., c. 1913. Library of Congress.

Post card called

The Groves

Postcards simultaneously glamorized citrus country for tourism and marketed California’s golden fruit. Citrus industry growth was dependent on the railroads, which carried the goods and promoted the fantasy of a citrus paradise. This is a rare image to include citrus pickers, as labor is usually out of view.

Postcard, “Traveling through the Orange Groves, Calif.,” c. 1900. Private collection.

Colored post card showing the fumigation of orange trees with children present

The War on Pests

Historically, grove owners have used a variety of pest-control methods including cyanide fumigation tents and sulfur. These substances fed what would become agriculture’s chemical addiction to producing unblemished and “quality” fruit. They declared war on pests, just as the mass production of cyanide for industrial groves would later be deployed for chemical warfare on people. Here, children join the preparations.

Workers used fumigation tents, sulfuric acid, and cyanide to reduce pests—here with children in tow, c. 1892. David Boulé California Orange Collection, Special Collections, The Claremont Colleges Library.

Four men in coats lay on citrus crates around flaming smudge pots

The Frost

On cold nights, citrus workers woke before dawn to light “smudge pots” filled with diesel fuel. They produced billowing smoke and soot, which kept the air under the tree canopies warm, protecting the trees when winter temperatures dropped low enough to damage valuable fruit or kill the trees entirely. Exhausted Covina High School student smudgers rest on crates beside lit smudge pots as the groves grow smoky.

Smudging in the Citrus Belt, 1952. USC Digital Library. Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

Redlands Foothill Groves packing crate label. Image shows mountains and groves in a valley with a large mission style buidling in the mid-ground

Redlands Foothill Groves citrus crate label, 1927. University of California, Riverside. Special Collections and University Archives.

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.

1930s black and white image of the William E Porter home in Riveside.

Structuring the Dream

Spanish Colonial Revival architecture became a core symbol of place and identity associated with Anglo citrus communities throughout Southern California in the early 20th century. Architects designed a range of homes and buildings in this style throughout the inland region. Wealthy grower estates, like the 1925 Porter Mansion in Riverside, represented the quintessential California lifestyle of wealth, health, and the modernity of agricultural innovations wrapped in nostalgia for an exotic imaginary past. Spanish Colonial Revival homes–easily recognized by their red-tiled roofs, arches, and flat, stuccoed walls–remain iconic throughout California, despite their troubling references to a violent mission past.

Washington navel oranges surround W. E. Porter Mansion (or “La Atalaya,” “The Watchtower”), Riverside, Calif., 1930. University of California, Riverside. Special Collections and University Archives.

Orang diplay featuring painted oranges to show a scene of a priest blessing two stereotypically depicted Native American figures

Reckoning with the Past

As part of the rise of citriculture in the late 19th century, citrus fairs showcased unique local varieties, and used fruit to create displays of California as the “land of plenty.” Capitalizing on the fact that citrus was first cultivated at San Gabriel Mission in the 18th century, such exhibits often celebrate rather than criticize the colonial past. This display shows a Native American kneeling in religious conversion at the feet of a Franciscan missionary and is made entirely out of oranges and lemons. Yet this common imagery of supplication served another purpose: to convey a message of white supremacy over Indigenous and other people of color.

Redlands-Highland Fruit exchange image caption: Individual pieces of fruit form this display, sponsored by Redlands-Highland Fruit Exchange, 1949. Archives, A.K. Smiley Library.

1920s black and white image of group of people dressed in

“Greet ‘em with Oranges”

Railway tours of the “Orange Empire” brought visitors inland from Los Angeles through, as brochures mentioned, the “endless scenic glories of the greatest orange growing section of the world” to experience California’s fantasy past and its agricultural present. This image of a 1926 tourism campaign called “Greet ‘em with Oranges” shows local residents dressed in Spanish costumes with baskets of oranges ready to enchant train passengers. Riverside’s most prominent booster, Frank Miller, went to great lengths to position his Mission Inn as a key tourist stop within a complex of Spanish landmark and citrus landscape sites, fostering the mistaken idea that it was once a mission.

Riverside Chamber of Commerce arranged for Spanish-costumed greeters of Union Pacific’s Los Angeles Limited, 1926. Museum of Riverside.

Postcard of Sherman Insitute in Redlands California showing school buildings and students assembled in a line

Touring Sherman Institute

Sherman Institute, founded in 1902, was an off-reservation boarding school aimed to “civilize” and “Americanize” Native youth by attempting to strip them of their cultures and Indigenous languages. It was built in the Spanish Colonial style specified by local businessmen such as Frank Miller, who promoted Sherman as a tourist stop. It was located near Miller’s Mission Inn and at the end of the railway line he held stock in. Over a century after colonization, Sherman youth dwelled in buildings that looked like a mission, where they were not free to leave, and from which they were sent out to work at nearby ranches to pick and pack citrus at cut-rate wages. Some students found solace in the groves, where they could speak their own language and sing their own songs.

Color postcard of Sherman: Postcard, Sherman Institute, Riverside, Calif., c. 1910. Private collection.

Native American fruit picers camp showing many individuals next to cots under eucalyptus trees

Native American fruit pickers camp, 1897. Security Pacific National Bank Collection. Los Angeles Public Library.

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.

Native American children playing outside, thatched houses in the background

We stand on Native land. The arroyo (dry riverbed) behind you, which goes through the park, was a source of sustenance as part of the traditional territory of Cahuilla, Luiseño, Serrano, and Tongva-Gabrieleño. As the most sizable labor force in the 19th century—until the influx of Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican immigrants—many were pressed into low-waged citrus labor. Some local Cahuilla lived in villages called rancherias and encampments close to the groves. When a citrus grower’s 1903 theft diverted the sole water source for Serrano living at San Manuel Reservation, residents who were already forced to labor in the groves additionally had to bathe in the irrigation run off and carry drinking water from afar.

Spring Rancheria, Cahuilla village, Mt. Rubidoux, Riverside, Calif., 1886 Museum of Riverside.

Chinese laborers at F. B. Devine packinghouse in 1880s


As Chinese immigrant men transitioned from railroad work to the citrus industry in the 1870s and 80s, they settled in communities throughout the citrus belt. Many brought their cultural knowledge of citrus from home, where the fruit had been cultivated for thousands of years. The “Riverside Method” of furrow irrigation–a more efficient use of water than prior efforts–was a Chinese contribution as were picking and packing methods that enabled mass distribution of citrus. Due to racially discriminatory laws, by 1885 the community was forced from the city’s center to its outskirts, where the Chinese population could swell from 400 to 4,000 during harvest season. The Chinese settler population eventually dwindled due to xenophobic immigration restrictions, including the Chinese Exclusion Act.

F. B. Devine Packinghouse, Riverside, Calif., 1888. University of California, Riverside. Special Collections and University Archives.

Black and white early 1900s group portriat of Korean Riversiders near the gage canal

Pachappa Camp

Established in 1905 and lasting until 1918 , Pachappa Camp in Riverside was the first organized settlement of Koreans on the U.S. mainland. Pachappa–a Cahuilla word–was also the name of the street next to the railroad tracks and packinghouses where the labor force settled. While there were smaller Korean settlements in Upland, Redlands, and Claremont, Riverside became a popular destination because of the relationship Korean independence leader Ahn Chang Ho established with citrus grove owners to employ Korean laborers. Additionally, while other Korean labor camps across the state were mostly young, single men, Riverside’s Pachappa Camp thrived with families settling there together, establishing churches, schools, a labor bureau, and other important social institutions.

Residents of Riverside’s Koreatown sitting alongside the Gage Canal, 1911. Young Oak Kim Center for Korean American Studies. University of California, Riverside.

Casa Blanca Elementary school class picture from 1927 showing mostly Mexican students and two white teachers

Casa Blanca

When Simona Valero was a child in the Casa Blanca neighborhood in the 1930s, her memories included the smell of Italian food wafting in the window and Japanese and Spanish spoken on the same block. The multiracial colonia developed to serve the citrus industry, and especially after the 1910s, included families from Mexico fleeing economic and political instability. They established small businesses, celebrated community festivals, and proudly served in the military. Yet children of color were only permitted to attend the segregated, substandard Independiente, Irving, and Casa Blanca Schools. In the face of blatant violation of civil rights, these families fought for desegregation and won in 1965.

Casa Blanca School, 1927. Collection of Morris Mendoza.

Pasadena Luscious oranges citrus crate label showing a young girl smiling holding an orange section

Sunkist innovated ads connecting oranges to good health, Luscious Brand, 1918. Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

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.

Wookblock print of a striker laying prone on the ground with orange tree above him


“Shoot to kill” was the directive of the Orange County Sheriff to his deputies and armed vigilantes sent to guard the orchards where nearly 3,000 naranjeros (Mexican orange workers) went on strike in 1936. Fighting for 40 cents an hour instead of 27 cents, free transportation and tools, and the right to unionize, the strikers used skills of labor activism they had sharpened in Mexico, and a community who rallied to help. The sheriff, himself a grove owner, declared that the agitators were communists and brutally suppressed the strike by attacking, tear gassing, jailing, deporting, and blacklisting strikers. Journalist-lawyer Carey McWilliams renamed Sunkist, “Gunkist.” Others point to these events as widening the racial rifts and economic inequalities between Orange County’s white and Latinx communities.

Image from civil rights advocate and journalist Carey McWilliams, “Gunkist Oranges,” Pacific Weekly, 20 July 1936.

1930s black and white photo showing a man dumping oranges from a truck onto the side of the road, the road is covered in rotten oranges

“A Putrefying Ooze”

During the Great Depression, as children were dying of malnutrition, thousands of tons of oranges were destroyed so that the industry’s overproduction in the face of low sales would not force citrus prices down. One of the most famous passages in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) criticizes the immoral economy of agribusiness: “The people come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they watch…the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.” Though citrus was not the only crop ruined to control prices as a million people went hungry, this image of waste contrasted Sunkist’s picture-perfect promotional views of the healthful and verdant citrus landscape.

Thousands of tons of oranges were dumped and ruined with creosote to keep up the market prices of oranges, 1938. Private collection.

The Packinghouses

Who is working the line? Women! Latinas, to be exact. Though Chinese and Japanese immigrant men picked and packed fruit in the late 1800s, the grading and packing of citrus later became “women’s work.” Gender and race have shaped the division of labor ever since. By the 1940s, Latinas were the majority on the packing house assembly line, where the work was repetitive and the packinghouses cold in winter and hot in summer. In the 1990s, women working at the largest lemon packing companies in California won sexual discrimination cases charging unequal hours, jobs, and pay as men. Despite this, women still grade and pack citrus while men pick. Today even these jobs are disappearing in the face of automation.

Latinas on the Sunkist packing house line, 1939. David Boulé California Orange Collection. Special Collections, The Claremont Colleges Library.

Bracero Rafael Gonzales posing at Cone Camp

Bracero Camps

By the mid 1910s, Mexican American laborers and their families were considered by grove owners to be a stable source of manageable low-wage labor. Not surprisingly, these growers objected when this workforce increasingly advocated for labor rights in the 1930s. Adding to the industry’s woes were labor shortages during World War II. The Bracero Program (1942–1964) solved the problem, providing temporary guest workers from Mexico known as “braceros,” who became 80–90% of the citrus picking force. Camps were constructed to house, entertain, and ultimately contain the seasonal flow of Mexican nationals during citrus harvest season. Some returned to Mexico when their contracts were up, while others stayed and became part of a permanent community.

Rafael Gonzales, Cone Camp, Redlands, Calif., c. 1942. Inland Mexican Heritage.

Black and white photo of a man using a stump puller to remove a citrus tree

Weldon Field invented the “stump puller,” and was kept busy in Orange County as groves gave way to suburban tract developments, c. 1950. Orange County Archives.

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.

Combined images of citrus workers working on a conveyorbelt and Amazon workers working on a logistics line

Life on the Line

Citrus processing and logistics both depend on the interweaving of human and mechanical labor through the same style of conveyor belt and assembly line. Repetitive movements, rapid pacing required to keep up with machines, extremes of weather conditions in the warehouses, and high volume of noise also characterize both industries. Additionally, digital tools have threatened the jobs in each industry, where automation and robotics reduce the necessity for humans and computer surveillance ensures that workers meet productivity goals. Workers’ livelihoods depend on it. Citrus packinghouse workers were paid based on how many crates of oranges they could pack a day, and Amazon employees today need to maintain a mandated “pick-rate” to ensure job security.

Top: Women at Corona-College Heights Orange and Lemon Association’s packinghouse, 2017. Photo by Thomas McGovern.

Bottom: Workers at Amazon Fulfillment Center, Tracy, Calif., 2015. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith.

Combined image showing 1960s image of Redlands orange groves and 2020s image of warehosues where groves once stood

Growing Warehouses

Just as the citrus industry altered the existing landscape in the late 19th century, remaining agricultural lands began to be cleared in the late 20th century to make way for today’s leading employer of Inland Southern California: logistics, or distribution warehouses. By the 1950s, citrus disease, the cost of water, and demands for industry and housing made groves less profitable. By the first decade of the 21st century, the land was declared “cheaper than dirt.” Large corporations like Prologis bought vast tracts, uprooted groves, and built warehouses. In nearby Redlands, there are a few groves that remain sandwiched between warehouses.      These small groves and the old palm trees lining the streets are the only reminders of the area’s citrus past.

Top: Aerial view of Redlands, Calif., 1950s. Archives, A.K. Smiley Library.

Bottom: Prologis Redlands Distribution Center, Redlands, 2015. Prologis.

Many workers standing with strike signs one reads

Struggles for Labor Justice

In 1941, nearly 800 Mexican American citrus workers in Corona organized to picket local packinghouses for union recognition, fair wages, and better working conditions.      Efforts like these achieved small gains for laborers because  growers and their anti-union alliances consistently undermined the formation of unions by citrus workers. Today, community-based organizations such as Warehouse Worker Resource Center recognize that by “choking” the supply chain through strikes and sit-ins, they can gain rights for workers who move goods through the region. Through lawsuits and demonstrations, as pictured here at the then-biggest goods movement company in the U.S., California Cartage, warehouse workers successfully won rights to organize, higher minimum wages, increased worker protections, and safety enforcement.

Citrus workers on strike, Corona, Calif., c. 1941. Board of Trustees of the Corona Public Library.

Warehouse workers striking, holding signs and wearing orange safety vests

Warehouse workers strike at California Cartage, Long Beach, Calif., 2015. Warehouse Worker Resource Center.