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

But the crown jewel of the Bastanchurys was their 3,000-acre citrus grove, rows of Valencia orange and lemon trees that went up and down the Ranch, held in place by terrace farming. On the family's stationery and on the labels for their orange crates, marketed under the Model, Basque, Daily, Popular and Golden Ram brands, read the slogan "The World's Largest Orange and Lemon Orchard," a claim no one bothered to dispute.

Domingo's sons were fiercely proud of their accomplishments and never shied away from boasting about what they had willed up from what many considered remote badlands. "Some of my ideas were discountenanced by scientific men, by farm bureau men," Gaston Bastanchury told the California Citrograph, the bible of the Golden State's citrus industry, in 1923. He was the public face of the family, a man who frequently made the society pages for his many trips abroad, a tycoon so rich that he once offered heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey an $800,000 purse if the Manassa Mauler would fight on the Ranch, in a custom-built arena Gaston promised would seat 135,000 people. "I felt that I knew what we could do and kept on. But the fact remains that these old brown hills—and you can still see hundreds of acres in that same state around us—have produced trees and those trees are beginning to return something on the investment of labor and money which have been put into them."

Life was fabulous on the Ranch—it became the center of Basque life in Southern California, featuring weekend-long parties filled with traditional lunches and dinners. There was even a handball court so that nostalgic men could play the jai alai of their youth. But to create their dreamland, the Bastanchurys needed cheap labor—first, Native Americans, then fellow Basques and a smattering of Japanese. By the 1920s, though, cheap labor in Southern California agriculture meant Mexican workers, and the Bastanchurys began recruiting across the Southwest and abroad, uniting with fellow Orange County orchard owners to lobby Congress for relaxed immigration laws, arguing only Mexicans could properly work with oranges.

The hill of cactus off Euclid Avenue that the Bastanchury Mexicans would harvest.
John Gilhooley
The hill of cactus off Euclid Avenue that the Bastanchury Mexicans would harvest.
Cuca Morales, on one of the trails of the former Bastanchury Ranch.
John Gilhooley
Cuca Morales, on one of the trails of the former Bastanchury Ranch.

"Our experience shows us that the white man does not like the tedious routine work of picking and will promptly leave this for any other job available, even at smaller wages," wrote J. A. Prizer, manager of the Placentia Orange Growers Association, in a prepared statement given to Congress in 1928. At that same hearing, Prizer revealed that county growers used the Bastanchurys' worker rolls to determine how many Mexicans they needed to run a successful operation. "The Mexican, by nature, seems to be peculiarly adapted to this class of work. He is patient, and apparently enjoys the work itself."

And so the Bastanchurys brought in hundreds of Mexicans. A contemporary of the dynasty derided the Ranch as "their own private kingdom in the Fullerton hills," isolated from the rest of civilization, and it wasn't far from the truth: while grower-sponsored worker camps sprang up across Orange County's citrus belt, the Bastanchurys' orange pickers lived like serfs.

"[The Bastanchurys] had the Old World feudalistic attitude toward their farm hand," wrote Druzilla Mackey, an Americanization teacher in Orange County alongside Arleta Kelly, in a 1949 history of education in Fullerton. She had no problem with the workers, describing them as "always the poorest of our Mexicans, the most friendly and also the most idealistic." But she openly despised the Bastanchurys, writing "they felt generous in allowing these squatters to establish homes on their ranch and could not comprehend its danger to the health and morality of the community as a whole."

Mackey described abodes constructed from sheet iron, discarded fence posts, sign boards, even rusted bed springs—whatever detritus Mexicans could find in the Ranch's trash dump; Kelly remembered one built of "cartons and wood and pieces of tin." Some houses were half-wood, half-canvas. Few had running water; nearly all had outside, shared toilets. Rains turned everything into a swamp; despite the abundance of artesian water, families had to draw their own from irrigation ditches and carry it via buckets to their homes. Once a week, a grocery wagon arrived with fresh produce and meat—a necessity, since almost no one had refrigeration because there was little electricity. Some homes had dirt floors, some were just tents. Elsie Carlson, who taught the Ranch's Mexican children, put it thusly: "I felt like a missionary."

The conditions endured by the Bastanchury Mexicans became something of a county scandal; a newspaper exposé, lost to history but cited by Kelly in her COPH oral history, mentioned the "exceedingly primitive and poverty stricken" condition of the camp, which upset the Bastanchurys and their management. But after organizing by the Americanization teachers and the Rev. Graham C. Hunter of the First Presbyterian Church of Fullerton, the Ranch finally relented and built homes for workers with potable water in 1927, along with a wooden classroom for first-, second-, and third-graders—tellingly, the Basque and white children on the Ranch were bussed to the "white" schools in the Fullerton flatlands, while the Mexican children on the Ranch had to trudge at least a half mile to school on dirt roads through orchards.

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