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

On March 18, about a month before the start of the Valencia orange harvest, CUCOM organizers presented growers with the demands of Orange County pickers: 40 cents per hour for an eight-hour work day instead of 27 cents; free transportation and tools; the abolition of a bonus system that promised riches to workers who stayed with one grower for an entire season but that workers rarely saw; and the right to a union. If the growers didn’t grant the naranjeros these points, they would strike on June 11.

The growers ignored CUCOM in March and again in April, when CUCOM resubmitted their demands. Instead, the growers unveiled their war strategy. The previous year, 1935, in a remarkable violation of the Constitution, they’d persuaded the Board of Supervisors to outlaw picketing in Orange County. Three weeks before the proposed strike, TheSanta Ana Register (now The Orange County Register) allowed the editor of the Sunkist Courier, the official newspaper of the California Fruit Growers Exchange, to publish an article in which he argued his company “is probably the most democratic organization and set-up of any group of agricultural producers, or of a large business institution of any kind” and would endure any threats “because of its sound and democratic foundation.”

The Register followed the next day with a guest editorial from Sheriff Logan Jackson, himself a citrus farmer. Under the title, “Protect the Right to Work,” Jackson pledged to defend King Citrus at all costs. “So long as the citrus industry contributes in a major degree to the welfare of the people of the county, the problems of that industry are of interest to most of us,” he wrote. Jackson praised Mexican laborers who he claimed “have been treated with a consideration that does credit to the people of the county” but warned of “agitators” who “made every effort to raise discontent among local Mexicans.”

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

“If they are able to persuade misguided Mexicans to go on strike, I cannot prevent it,” Jackson continued. “I can, however, and will employ every facility at my command, to protect those who wish to work, and to protect the people of this county in the right of property and in the right to conduct their affairs without the threat of violence.”

The Citrus War was about to begin.

On June 11, at 2 p.m., 2,500 naranjeros left the orange groves.

“Comrades strike!” read a flier passed around Orange County barrios and citrus camps on the eve of the strike. “The moment has arrived in which all the workers of this county of Orange should form one front to defend the sacred rights which we have.”

Orange County’s still-emerging Latino community rallied behind the naranjeros. Grocers extended credit to strikers and their families. Wives joined their husbands on the line. Musicians penned corridos in honor of the strikers. Mexican consul Hill pledged his support, along with Lucas Lucio, a Santa Ana activist who served as a liaison between Orange County’s Latino community and its Anglo leaders.

Citrus growers fought back with their own fliers: Orange County’s conservative newspapers. A week after the strike began, orange growers spokesperson Stuart Strathman told the Register, with no evidence whatsoever, that the strikers were Cardenistas, followers of Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas, and fomenting a “little Mexican revolution.” Calling someone a Cardenista was worse than being labeled a Red that year: earlier that spring, Cárdenas infuriated the United States government when he nationalized Mexico’s oil industry, usurping American oil interests.

Orange County’s newspapers tried to downplay the strike whenever possible. On June 12, a day after the strike began, the weekly Placentia Courier ran an analysis under the headline, “Citrus Strike is Called; Work Continues.”

“Labor conditions in the citrus industry have always been amicable and when the men ask for changes in rates of pay due to seasonal changes of fruit and picking conditions, they have been made,” the Courier asserted. “The packing house managers resent the demands made by labor agitators and are determined not to permit their pickers to be molested.”

Four days later, the Register reported “pickers are going back to orchards.” Orange-packing officials had assured its reporters that the strike is “on the mend and probably will end within two days.” The Santa Ana Journal chimed in with an open letter to the strikers: “Why don’t you quit this foolishness? Can’t you see by now that the strike is a washout? That it has failed?” On June 19, city of Orange Police Chief George Franzen responded to a Register reporter’s question about the strike by asking, “What strike?” And on June 24, Strathman again told the Register that “so far as the citrus growers and packers of Orange County are concerned there is no pickers strike.”

In closed-door meetings, however, the growers were getting desperate. According to confidential documents of the Placentia Orange Growers Association cited by González, the number of boxes picked dropped from 7,000 per day before the strike to about 3,300 a couple of weeks into it. They imported some Mexican and Filipino strikebreakers from the Inland Empire, but relied mostly on inexperienced high school and college boys to replace the naranjeros. Newspapers praised the boys “who are helping out the citrus growers, their fathers and a great industry in an emergency.” J.A. Prizer, head of the Orange County Protective Association, a militia hastily assembled for Orange County citrus growers, released a statement boasting, “We are finding that the American boys and men can pick oranges as well as their fathers did some 30 years ago and as well as any other pickers we have had in recent years.”

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