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 it's part of history," Clara shoots back. "And it should be noted. Instead, people want to forget us."

To remember, Clara drives her mother through the streets of what was the Bastanchury Ranch—"what's now a bunch of rich people's homes," she cracks. "Mom always appreciates going down Gilbert [Street] and Euclid [Avenue]. To see the cactus."

It's spring again, and the hills of Fullerton are blooming. Native shrubs like coyote brush, Southern willow scrub and California sagebrush feature new branches; flowering plants like yellow sun cups, purple phacelia and orange monkeyflowers bloom. Hikers and bikers zip along trails and streets, most ending up at Laguna Lake Park off Euclid.

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.

Across the street is the Robert E. Ward Nature Preserve, a fenced-off section of the West Coyote Hills that developers have long eyed to turn into more ranch-style homes. This is the heart of what was the Bastanchury Ranch—and from the parking lot of Sunny Hills Church of Christ you can see the earth alive with the new shoots of prickly pear cactus.

It was near here where the Ranch schoolhouse existed, here where its workers came to trim the nopalitos that grew anew every spring, where a community lived and loved and learned. And it's these cacti that nearly everyone interviewed about the Ranch—from Arletta Kelly to Druzilla Mackey, Elsie Carlson to Cuca Morales, and so many more—brought up as the sole surviving remnant of the Bastanchury Mexicans, the sight always prompting them to recall the forgotten past.

Those memories never made any Orange County narratives. Although mentions of the Ranch colonias dot the COHP archives, only a few people ever access them. Those who lived through its demise mostly kept their memories to themselves, saving photos in albums not available to the public. No full examination of the Bastanchury Mexicans exists: the only two academic texts to even mention them are Gilbert G. González's seminal 1994 study of Orange County's Mexican orange pickers, Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County, 1900-1950, and Francisco E. Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez's Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s—and the former only devotes a few paragraphs, while the latter has but a sentence.

But if the Ward Nature Preserve's colonies of cacti are the last-standing legacy of the lost Mexicans of the Bastanchury Ranch, then it's an almost cosmic landmark. The nopal is the ultimate metaphor for Mexicans, displayed on the Mexican flag as a reminder of who they are. It's a plant that grows best in inhospitable conditions where little else can exist, one you can hack at but will still give, still thrive. And there on the Fullerton hills, long after the decline of the Ranch and the scattering of the Bastanchury Mexicans, the cactus plants stand sentry 80 years later, the most beautiful, nourishing memorial imaginable.

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