Gunkist Oranges

Wonder why Orange County trembles whenever its Mexicans protest? Welcome to the Citrus War of 1936, the most important event in Orange County history youve never heard of

Seventy years ago this week, Orange County’s most brutally suppressed strike began with a bite.

On June 15, 1936, at the break of dawn, about 200 Mexican women gathered in Anaheim to preach the gospel of huelga—strike. Four days earlier, about 2,500 Mexican naranjeros representing more than half of Orange County’s crucial citrus-picking force dropped their clippers, bags and ladders to demand higher wages, better working conditions and the right to unionize.

The women spread across the groves of Anaheim, the heart of citrus country, urging workers to let the fruit hang. Twenty Anaheim police officers confronted the women; they refused to disperse. At some point there was an altercation, and 29-year-old Placentia resident Virginia Torres bit the arm of Anaheim police officer Roger Sherman. Police arrested Torres, along with 30-year-old Epifania Marquez, who tried to yank a strikebreaker—a scab—from a truck by grabbing onto his suspenders.

Illustration by Bob Aul
Illustration by Bob Aul
Anaheim's last orange grove, where the citrus war began. Photo by Matt Otto
Anaheim's last orange grove, where the citrus war began. Photo by Matt Otto

Little else is known about the Fort Sumter of Orange County—newspaper accounts say only that Torres and Marquez received jail sentences of 60 and 30 days, respectively. But Orange County responded with an organized wrath years in the planning. Growers enlisted the local chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion to guard fields. They evicted families of strikers from their company-owned houses. The English-language press became a bulletin board for the growers—The Santa Ana Register, for instance, described the 200 Mexican women in Anaheim as “Amazons with fire of battle in their eyes.”

Orange County Sheriff Logan Jackson deputized citrus orchard guards and provided them with steel helmets, shotguns and ax handles. The newly minted cops began arresting strikers en masse, more than 250 by strike’s end. When that didn’t stop the strike, they reported workers to federal immigration authorities. When that didn’t work, out came the guns and clubs. Tear gas blossomed in the groves. Mobs of citrus farmers and their supporters attacked under cover of darkness.

What county residents tried to dismiss as a fruitless strike quickly escalated into a full-fledged civil war in which race and class were inseparable. The Mexicans of Orange County, the county’s historical source of cheap labor, were finally asking for better working conditions; their gabacho overlords wouldn’t hear it. And so both sides fought for a month until the lords of Orange County won.

Wonder why Orange County trembles whenever its Mexicans protest? Welcome to the Citrus War of 1936, the most important event in Orange County history you’ve never heard of.

The Citrus War erupted at a volatile point in California and Orange County history. It was the nadir of the Great Depression, and radicalism was in the air. Two years earlier, writer Upton Sinclair nearly became California’s governor by campaigning under the slogan EPIC (End Poverty in California). Blood spilled across the fields of the Golden State as law enforcement and growers joined to brutally suppress unions. It was the year crusading journalist Carey McWilliams of the Pacific Weekly wrote a series of exposés about California’s agricultural industry that he would publish three years later in his classic Factories in the Field.

Orange County was a bucolic exception to California’s troubles. Its 51 orange-packing houses and more than 5,000 growers carefully crafted a national image of Edenic stability. Gorgeously decorated crates with labels such as Altissimo, Esperanza and Miracle portrayed a mythical California in which the Pacific Ocean gave way to orange groves that swept up to the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains; every crate of oranges offered paradise to a weary nation.

The country rewarded Orange County for its dreamscape; the Orange County citrus industry brought in $20 million in 1938 alone. “By the blessing of nature, Orange County had the lion’s share of the summer crop [of oranges] when the consumer was thirstiest,” wrote UC Irvine professor Gilbert G. González in Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County, 1900-1950, his 1994 history of Orange County citrus pickers. At its height, 75,000 acres of Valencia orange groves covered the county, mostly in Brea, La Habra, Anaheim, Orange, Villa Park and sections of Irvine.

Growers depended heavily on seasonal Mexican laborers, who brought with them a memory of unionism. In 1928, according to González, 14 Orange County residents participated in the first Southern California chapter of the Confederación de Uniones Obreras Mexicanas (Confederation of Mexican Workers Unions, or CUOM), a union for Mexican laborers in the United States organized through the Mexican consulate; the Great Depression soon smashed CUOM, and an alternative union emerged: the Confederación de Uniones de Campesinos y Obreros Mexicanos (Confederation of Mexican Farm Workers’ and Laborers’ Unions, or CUCOM). Whereas CUOM reported directly to the Mexican government, CUCOM’s founders had their roots in the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the Wobblies, one of the most powerful and most radical unions of the 1920s.

Under the direction of William Velarde, CUCOM led one of Orange County’s first strikes in 1933, when 125 Laguna Beach vegetable pickers left their jobs demanding 30 cents an hour. CUCOM organized other successful strikes in Orange County’s celery, squash, pea and lettuce industries, and Orange County’s naranjeros—who made up the bulk of Mexican laborers in the county at the time—took notice. On Oct. 11, 1935, Mexican consul Ricardo Hill told more than 2,000 citrus pickers at Anaheim’s Pearson Park that the consulate would support the naranjeros in their struggles for better wages. By the end of 1935, CUCOM set its sights on King Citrus.

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