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

By June 18, reports started coming in that strikers were menacing scabs. The Santa Ana Journal asked Sheriff Logan Jackson for his thoughts on the threats. “If they want to get rough,” he told the Journal, “we’ll take care of them!”

This summarized the philosophy of Jackson, a man usually brushed aside amongst the Lacys, Musicks and Caronas in the annals of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. But Jackson’s actions during the Citrus War cemented the relationship between the Sheriff’s Department and the county’s political and business elite, a relationship that continues to this day.

Even before Jackson penned his Register guest editorial, the sheriff offered growers armed escorts to drive scabs to and from the groves. He held almost weekly strategy meetings with the district attorney’s office and growers. Jackson invited immigration officials to deport any illegals his deputies detained, and helped the California Highway Patrol set up a radio station hidden in the groves to better coordinate activities.

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

Most crucially, Jackson deputized about 400 men, mostly the private guards of orange pickers. The special deputies also began haunting the strikers’ meeting—in one case, according to the Los Angeles Times, over 400 officers ended a meeting in Brea. These deputies executed Jackson’s mandate to keep order by arresting strikers and sympathizers on the flimsiest of charges. On June 16, for instance, the Register reported a man named Frank Medina was arrested because he was “interested” in the strike. Others were charged for trespassing, vagrancy or minor traffic infractions such as a busted taillight, driving on the wrong side of the road or—incredibly—improperly signing a vehicle registration card. On June 27, officers arrested Charles McLaughlin, Communist Party USA congressional candidate, for trespassing, vagrancy and “having no visible means of support.” Almost everyone received immediate 30- or 60-day jail sentences, with no jury for deliberations.

With Jackson’s backing, the orange growers grew bold. They asked the federal government to deport Hill, the Mexican consul, on charges he was behind the strike; that assertion ignored the fact that Hill had urged strikers to leave CUCOM, which he argued was filled with radicals. Hill didn’t leave, but the idea that the strike wasn’t homegrown but rather controlled by outside interests planted itself in the Orange County consciousness.

As the weeks passed with no progress in labor talks, and as the deputies increased their harassment, the strikers turned to violence. Strikers smashed car windows, assaulted strikebreakers at their homes or simply rushed into orange groves and beat them. On June 26, pickers burned the truck of foreman Joseph Hernandez in front of his Anaheim home. On July 1, strikers went into the camps and attacked the remaining pickers, according to newspaper reports, with “heavy chains, clubs, knives and other weapons”; in one case, those weapons were oranges. Two days later, strikers in La Habra attacked a truck carrying strikebreakers with rocks, shattering its windshield and injuring scores of scabs.

That day, Jackson and Orange County District Attorney W.F. Menton met with packing house officials to deputize more guards and arm them with taxpayer-supplied shotguns. Orange County now had 400 emergency deputies. Police departments across the county asked merchants not to sell ammunition to Mexicans anymore. It was time to end the strike.

At 2 in the afternoon on July 6, four carloads of Mexicans visited the Cooper Ranch in Fullerton. Guard M. A. Patterson ordered the caravan to stop. The cars slowed. About 20 Mexican laborers spilled out. Patterson shot into the air. The strikers didn’t stop. They took Patterson’s shotgun and beat him over the head with it. Then they rushed the scabs.

Similar attacks spread across Orange County’s groves for the next two days. Strikers fought with “iron bars, clubs and their fists,” according to the Register. Guards responded with guns. In La Habra, a guard shot Angel Rojas in the leg “and would have injured others had not the gun jammed.” Deputies took Rojas to the hospital, where doctors amputated his leg. Then they turned him over to deputies to serve his jail time.

The Sheriff’s Department and politicians quickly responded. Officers pulled over anyone who looked Mexican and was close to the fields; by the end of July 7, deputies crammed over 200 Mexicans into Orange County Jail, charging them with rioting even though most were far from the scenes of fighting. While in jail, officers beat strikers, in one case pummeling Leander Flores so badly that he required hospitalization. When Flores’ lawyer tried to introduce this into his trial, the judge refused and sentenced Flores to 35 days in jail—and then generously allowed for the sentence to begin after his hospital stay. Jackson dismissed Flores’ injuries as “nothing more than sympathy propaganda.”

Deputies and growers increased their harassment. Some 150 strikers tried to hold a meeting after the July 6 attacks but were met by 100 ranchers, each carrying an ax handle. At the preliminary hearing of 13 men tried in an Anaheim courtroom on July 8, Deputy James Musick—the future sheriff of Orange County—strolled around the courtroom armed with a Tommy gun and backed by a detail of well-armed deputies. District Attorney Menton declared he had 500 blank warrants for rioting and would use them all. Deputies stopped food caravans coming from Los Angeles to aid strikers and stripped them of their goods. The Placentia Courier detailed the “troubles” of gun-toting ranchers and executives who pointed guns at “excited Mexicans but decided not to shoot.”

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