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 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.’”

“McWilliams saw a contrast between the fruit-crate label version of California and ugly labor practices,” Richardson said. “It fed his notion that there was this bright, pleasant surface to California life, but it had an uglier underside. The Orange County citrus strike struck a chord for him because it was so obviously unjust.”

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

The orange trees on the corner of Santa Ana and Helena streets in Anaheim are bearing again. Their fruit hangs from the branches, bright and plump, awaiting pickers. But the grove is quiet this Saturday morning, save for some kids who trail their hands along the chain-link fence that keeps the trees free from trespassers. And so, the fruit falls to the ground and rots.

Nearby, in a vacant lot that was an orange grove not even five years ago, bulldozers lie silent. They’ve pushed the earth around in ways that suggest another home development is coming soon. It won’t be long before the last remaining orange grove in Anaheim, too, falls victim to progress.

This is the spot where 200 women clashed with Anaheim police, the area where Virginia Torres bit the Anaheim police officer so many years ago and the Citrus War began.

When that orange grove disappears, it will join the 1936 Citrus War in Orange County’s dustbin of history. The Citrus War solidified the county’s distrust of its Mexican population, which we see whenever they take to the streets. It created a Sheriff’s Department that can do anything with the full support of Orange County’s fathers. It’s a cliché, now, to talk about the Orange Curtain, but back in 1936, men like McWilliams must have experienced the place that way—isolated from the world, beyond the reach of state or federal officials, a free-fire zone for ranchers and men of quality.

And yet no one remembers. A 1975 Los Angeles Times retrospective noted the paucity of information about the strike, calling it “one of the least-chronicled incidents in the history of the citrus belt.” “It still is not mentioned in polite histories,” an unnamed historian told Times reporter Evan Maxwell. “It was not a very pretty thing, but it tells something about where this county has been.”

It’s still not mentioned. Most of the strike’s survivors are dead, and those who remember it do so through the mind of a child. Three dissertations have been written about the 1936 Citrus War, but they’re confined to university special collections, far from the public discourse. McWilliams is the strike’s best chronicler, but his work nowadays appeals only to historians. There’s little or no mention of the Citrus War in the main Orange County chronologies or history books. Most of the packing houses where the growers and Sheriff Jackson held their secret meetings are gone. Even the official historian at First American Title Insurance Company, one of the county’s largest repositories of historical Orange County photos, had never heard of the strike when I told him I was doing research on the story.

When we talk about our long-gone citrus industry, we return to the orange crates, the last remnants of King Citrus. More than just art, the crates nowadays pass themselves off as snapshots of the past. Idealized images become real history; real history disappears. The growers win; the strikers lose again.

In the archives of Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History, there’s a 1986 interview with Cecil J. Marks, manager and executive secretary of the Orange County Farm Bureau during the Citrus War. It was under his direction that the Farm Bureau lobbied the federal government to deport Hill, the Mexican consul. Now, 50 years later, Marks was still insisting that Mexican citrus growers never had reason to strike.

“They had good housing; they had good food; they had the kind of food that they liked to have,” Marks told an interviewer. “The migrants knew they were going into a part-time job and they did not mind it. . . . It was a pretty fair thing they were getting and I don’t think they felt that they were being put upon.”

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Simply Fantastic work. I want to do some research on Anaheim last remaining orange grove. This is so inspirational. 

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