The Lost Mexicans of the Bastanchury Ranch

80 years ago, officials deported hundreds of Fullerton residents—and Orange County has tried to forget ever since

The Lost Mexicans of the Bastanchury Ranch

Decades later, long after federal authorities deported the last of her students, Arletta Kelly still remembered the cactus.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Kelly had worked as an Americanization teacher in the citrus camps of Orange County, tasked with schooling Mexican immigrants in the art of good citizenship. During the day, she taught women how to sew and cook American meals like casseroles and pies; at night, the Michigan native recited basic English phrases before audiences of men so that they could use them at work. She bounced across the colonias (worker colonies) of North County, from La Habra to Placentia, Anaheim to Fullerton. But Kelly eventually spent most of her time with the Mexicans of the Bastanchury Ranch, 6,000 rolling acres of what now constitutes the exclusive neighborhoods of northwest Fullerton—Sunny Hills, Valencia Mesa and others—and parts of Brea and La Habra, an area that to this day, with its winding roads, visible horse stables, dramatic valleys and stretches of untouched California landscape, feels rustic, beautiful and foreboding.

In 1968, Betty Schmidt with the Center for Oral and Public History (COPH) at Cal State Fullerton interviewed Kelly about her days at the Ranch—and that's when Kelly brought up the cactus. By then 70 years old, the maestra fondly recalled the Bastanchury Mexicans, who had created a society of their own far removed from the rest of Orange County. They were so grateful for Kelly's tutorship that women frequently invited her to their ramshackle homes for dinner and a bit of south-of-the-border hospitality. Kelly singled out the cooking of one woman because, as she told her interviewer, "One of the things that she served so frequently that I was fond of was what she called 'nopalitos,' which are the little tiny shoots of the cactus."

A group of women who took the ranch's Americanization classes. Morales is the cute toddler at the bottom left.
A group of women who took the ranch's Americanization classes. Morales is the cute toddler at the bottom left.

Schmidt asked from where did the unnamed Mexican woman buy the nopalitos. "There were big cactus" all around the Bastanchury territory, Kelly said. "And then when the spring came they would come up; why, when the shoots would come up, [the Mexican woman] would cut them off and peel them and slice them down and cut them up in little bits."

The rest of Kelly's interview, transcribed and available for reading at the COPH archives, is filled with similarly pastoral anecdotes, stories about riding a bicycle, about another Mexican woman who pronounced "cheese" as "Jesus," and about her role in helping orchard growers fight strikers during the 1936 Citrus War. But when Schmidt asked about the fate of her students at the Ranch, Kelly's sharp memory quickly became spotty.

"Well, I think many of them went back to Mexico because work was scarcer and some of them had accumulated a little bit of money and so I knew of quite a few families that packed up and they drove back—in old jalopies—back to Mexico—the ones I happen to know of," Kelly said. "Now, others may have gone by some other method, I don't know."

In fact, the Mexicans who lived on the Bastanchury Ranch in the early 1930s were subject to one of the largest mass deportations in Orange County history, with hundreds of them in late March of 1933—single men and families, Mexican nationals and American citizens—thrown onto trains bound for Mexico, carrying with them only the clothes on their backs and whatever belongings they could lug along. Almost overnight, a vibrant community vanished, the homes of former residents demolished, its memory bulldozed into wealthy neighborhoods, the few surviving scraps locked in university archives or in the recollections of those few families that escaped exile.

Eighty years ago this spring, officials deported hundreds of legal residents whose only crime was being Mexican during the Great Depression—and Orange County has tried to forget ever since.

The Bastanchury family is familiar to generations of Southern California residents and scholars alike, and not just because of their namesake road, which unspools through the hills of Fullerton, Brea, Placentia and Yorba Linda. The Basque clan were one of Orange County's first national celebrities, a dynasty whose patriarch, Domingo, arrived at what's now Fullerton in the 1860s and eventually acquired about 10,000 acres of desolate terrain: for decades, his house was just one of two between Anaheim and Los Angeles. Originally using his holdings as grazing lands for sheep, Domingo's four sons eventually turned the Ranch into an agriculture and livestock powerhouse: 1,500 acres devoted to black-eyed peas, 500 acres for lima beans; hundreds of acres of walnut orchards and fields that, by 1928, sold more than 50 percent of California's tomatoes; 10 acres of Berkshire hog pens; and canneries and two packing houses that boxed the Ranch's riches for sale to the rest of America. Oil money came in the form of a legal settlement, and some of the water drawn from artesian wells for irrigation was sold publicly as Bastanchury Water, a brand that existed for decades. The estate was so sprawling that the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe and Union Pacific railroads built spurs near the packing houses, the easier to pick up the bounty, while the Pacific Electric Railway kept two stations within Ranch limits. Managers had to cut up the Ranch into sections with their own supervisors, just to handle everything properly.

Next Page »