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

“In summary, Orange County has come through a dangerous crisis without any permanent damage,” wrote the Santa Ana Journal after the announcement. “The road looks clear and straight ahead. The green light is shining. Let’s forget our past differences, climb on the bandwagon together and roll full steam ahead down the highway to the land of prosperity and contentment for all that should rightfully be Southern California.”

But the growers and Sheriff Jackson wouldn’t forget until all the Mexicans were behind bars. The day after the strike, Orange County Superior Court Judge H.G. Ames ordered 115 Mexicans who were arrested on rioting charges to enter a YMCA gymnasium that had been turned into a makeshift courtroom to accommodate everyone. The district attorney’s office had delayed their hearing twice already and sought to impose a maximum sentence of two years in state prison.

In an unexpected move, Ames freed all but one man. “I cannot agree with the district attorney on the matter of mass identification of these men,” said Judge Ames. “We might as well dispense with our Bill of Rights if we can hold men on mass identification. I only do believe the evidence shows rioting occurred but only five men have specifically been identified, four of them only as leaving the scenes of activity in cars.”

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

Growers had more luck with 13 men accused of assaulting a picker at the Tucker ranch in Anaheim. At one point, while defending attorney Clarence Rust, asked a witness to repeat his testimony, prosecutor James L. Davis shot back, “No wonder you can’t understand English. You were raised and educated in Russia.”

In his closing remarks, Davis railed against the “aliens from other lands coming here to violate our laws.” “Orange County is a good county, and prosperous,” Davis told the jury. “We want to keep it that way.” He attacked the credibility of the strike itself, dismissing the claims of exploitation by pickers as lies. “You, as citizens of Orange County, and who live here, know no such conditions exist. Orange County is the finest place in the world to live in.”

Rust responded by claiming the strikers were heroes and comparing them to “the Man of Galilee . . . They called Christ an agitator and crucified Him because He stirred up the people.”

The jury didn’t care for Rust’s comparison, convicting 10 of the 13 strikers. Three were sentenced to one year in county jail; seven for 10 months. All were given the option of suspending the sentence if they went to Mexico—complete with free transportation for themselves and their families. Only one agreed: Francisco Espinosa, who asked the court, “Some of us have property here. If the court would kindly wish to buy our property . . .”

The judge interrupted him: “No.”

In its year-end review, the Orange County grand jury gave Jackson a clean bill. Three grand jurors were citrus farmers; one, A.J. McFadden, was also an executive with the Irvine Company.

Strikers wouldn’t get their justice until 1939, when a congressional investigation found that Orange County growers illegally blacklisted people and colluded to crush the strike; no charges were filed, however. That was also the year Carey McWilliams packaged his Factories in the Field series from 1936 into a nationally released book. Factories in the Field, coupled with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Dorothea Lange’s portraits of Okies, introduced America to the brutal conditions in California’s agricultural fields.

One of the book’s sections, titled “Gunkist Oranges” was adapted from an article of the same name McWilliams wrote for Pacific Weekly at the height of the Citrus War. The Orange County strike, McWilliams wrote in the article, was “one of the toughest exhibitions of ‘vigilantism’ that California has witnessed in many a day . . . Under the direction of Sheriff Logan Jackson, who should long be remembered for his brutality in this strike, over 400 special guards, armed to the hilt, are conducting a terroristic campaign of unparalleled ugliness.”

“No one who has visited a rural county in California under these circumstances,” McWilliams added in Factories in the Field, “will deny the reality of the terror that exists. It is no exaggeration to describe this state of affairs as fascism in practice.”

Even years later, McWilliams still couldn’t shake the strike. In his 1946 Southern California Country: An Island in the Land, he remembered being “astonish[ed] in discovering how quickly social power could crystallize into an expression of arrogant brutality in these lovely, seemingly placid, outwardly Christian communities.

“In the courtrooms of the county,” McWilliams wrote, “I met former classmates of mine in college, famous athletes of the University of Southern California, armed with revolvers and clubs, ordering Mexicans around as though they were prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp.”

The Citrus War had a profound effect on McWilliams, according to Peter Richardson, whose recent biography, American Prophet: The Life & Work of Carey McWilliams, was published last year to much acclaim. He points to a passage from his book, a 1940 interview in which McWilliams told the interviewer, “I hadn’t believed stories of such wholesale violation of civil rights until I went down to Orange County to defend a number of farm workers held in jail for ‘conspiracy.’ When I announced my purpose, the judge said, ‘It’s no use; I’ll find them guilty anyway.’”

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