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

The Orange County Jail soon overflowed; guards placed newcomers in an open yard. Law enforcement officials from across the state visited the jails to identify detainees that might have participated in previous strikes, further driving home Jackson’s claim that the county’s Mexicans were being duped by outsiders. “This whole strike is now an assault upon the people of Orange County by communist agitators who are here for no good purpose,” Jackson told the Register. “If deputies are required to use their guns for the protection of life and property, they will, of course, be expected to do so.”

The county Board of Supervisors, responding to requests by growers, soon authorized Jackson to purchase “an arsenal of such size as to be able to cope not only with the present citrus strike but with future strikes.” Jackson ordered shotguns, clubs, tear gas and other chemical weapons that would cause “distressing illnesses” to those targeted.

“This is no fight between orchardists and pickers,” Jackson told the Register. “It is a fight between the entire population of Orange County and a bunch of communists.” He also gave deputies a fateful order: “Shoot to Kill,” splashed across the front page of the Register—and soon, the world’s newspapers.

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

White vigilante groups soon began attacking strikers at halls during nighttime raids. The worst incident occurred on July 10, when 40 men, under cover of night, threw tear gas bombs into a Placentia hall. Strikers rushing from the building were beaten by club-wielding vigilantes. When the smoke cleared, Alfonso Orosco, who testified at the trial of Communist Party candidate McLaughlin, was on the ground, unconscious. “Whether he was clubbed, or had struck his head on the brick wall while running to escape, could not be decided,” the Courier reported.

The Placentia attack sparked outrage in the Latino community; CUCOM demanded an investigation. Over 1,000 people protested in Los Angeles on behalf of the strikers. Growers denied responsibility, but a July 8 Register report revealed that growers who attended a “secret meeting” in Placentia that day had decided to “fight to a finish.” Strike leaders further noted that Placentia Police Chief Gus Barnes was monitoring the meeting from afar but left just as the vigilantes swooped in.

But law enforcement laughed; District Attorney Menton replied that he had only hearsay knowledge and no one had complained to him. Strikers asked state Attorney General U.S. Webb to investigate Orange County’s inaction; Webb instead blamed the naranjeros for provoking the vigilantes. Jackson, meanwhile, told the Register, “I wonder if some of this so-called vigilante work is not being done by outsiders who are trying to gain sympathy from Orange County residents. So far I have had no request for assistance in connection with these raids and only know what I hear on the street.”

The day after the vigilante attack, Hill and Lucio met with Jackson and Assistant DA James L. Davis to ask that they protect strikers. But Hill and Lucio quickly stormed out when they discovered Jackson’s secretary secretly transcribing their conversation in another room. Jackson responded to Hill and Lucio’s request with a written statement that partly read, “The sheriff’s office has been fully occupied during the strike period in the protection of law abiding citizens. We shall continue that protection. We have refrained from any activity outside the sanction of laws, and have encouraged every interest in the county to do the same. Unfortunately, the strikers have not followed our example. We believe that the citizens of Orange County approve the course which we have taken and we urge continued patience on the part of the people in a trying situation.”

Two days after Jackson’s statement, an anonymous note made its way to the Placentia City Council chambers. “If the strikers cannot have protection,” it promised, “we can use dynamite.” That got the attention of state and national officials, who swooped into Orange County to defuse the crisis. Edward H. Fitzgerald, commissioner of conciliation for the U.S. Department of Labor, warned Jackson that his “shoot to kill” edict was souring relations between the United States and Mexico. A San Diego state Assembly member called for a state investigation; Jackson told reporters the man was clearly a communist. Fred West, an official with the California Federation of Labor, arrived on July 11 and was arrested four days later by Musick for talking to strikers on a street corner.

“All law had been suspended in Orange County in an effort to terrorize and starve strikers into submission,” West wrote in a private letter to his superiors.

The terror campaign was working. With over 200 supporters in jail, the pickers’ once-solid unity began to fray. Soon, former Mexican President Adolfo de la Huerta and Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler—who owned a citrus ranch in Brea—offered to mediate between strikers and growers. They reached an agreement with the growers, which called for a minimal raise and the granting of all other demands except the right to unionize. The strikers, under the leadership of William Velarde, rejected the offer.

At this point, Lucio and Hill joined Jackson in trying to drive Velarde from the county. Velarde went underground, sneaking into Orange County in the dead of night and urging strikers to fight for a union. Deputies finally captured Velarde, and Hill and Lucio announced they had reached an agreement with growers on July 27. No union.

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