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."
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.
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.
"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.
A community grew. The 1920 census showed only a few Mexicans living on the Ranch; by the 1930 census, the official count was 411. It had grown so much that the U.S. Census Bureau gave the Bastanchurys their own designated tract, split into six colonias: Tia Juana, Mexicali, Escondido, Coyote, Santa Fe and San Quintín, which some ominously called El Hoyo—The Hole. Tia Juana was the largest, then Mexicali, and they were around what's now Laguna Lake Park in Fullerton; the rest gravitated near what's now St. Jude Hospital. Stand-alone shacks remained dotted throughout the Ranch.
"I think they were very happy people, really, they lived a very simple life, but it was probably somewhat better than the life they lived in Mexico," Kelly said, and the Mexicans made do with what they had. Though the houses were downtrodden, they were well kept, with gardens of flowers and vegetables prettying the environment. Mothers sent their children off to school scrubbed clean and dressed in their Sunday best. During the major Mexican holidays—Mexican Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo and Dia de los Muertos—the colonias held their own private celebrations or traveled together to Placentia and Los Angeles to partake in bigger ones. A monthly dance was held at the schoolhouse, and the Americanization teachers frequently presented their Mexican pupils to the Fullerton population at large as proof of their good work, affairs that earned approving write-ups in the Fullerton News Tribune and the Santa Ana Register. No one was an illegal immigrant; all the Bastanchury Mexicans were either American citizens or sponsored by their hosts, with most originating from Tepic, Jalisco.
This bucolic life couldn't last. In October 1931, at the height of the Great Depression, the Bastanchurys shocked Orange County by announcing they had debts of $2 million and were placing their beloved Ranch into a receivership. The celebrated citrus grove wasn't producing; it turned out that the soil on the Ranch wasn't conducive to large-scale, long-term growing, just as the old-timers had tried to tell the Bastanchurys.
But something more nefarious had infested the Ranch as well. In just three years, Orange County politicians had gone from begging Congress for more Mexican labor to demanding that those workers give up their jobs, homes and lives to whites and return to Mexico. By 1931, federal agents were raiding barrios and colonias across Southern California, rounding up legal residents and American citizens of Mexican descent alike, and deporting them to Mexico; upon arriving, the Mexicans were forced to give up their legal papers allowing entry back into the States. Taking a kinder approach, church, civic and business groups asked Mexicans to leave, vowing to pay their train fare. Even the Mexican Consulate, not wishing to anger their American neighbors, organized return trips back, with promises of jobs that somehow never materialized.
Without the family's patronage, the Bastanchury Mexicans were threatened. In the fall of 1932, the Mexican Consulate helped to organize a meeting in Fullerton to figure out how immigrants could stave off repatriation. The government's deportation campaigns had begun in Orange County, organized by the local Department of Welfare. The consulate's Orange County representative, Santa Ana resident Lucas Lucio, accompanied deported Mexicans from the Santa Ana train station to Union Station in Los Angeles, where he would then join them on a Southern Pacific train to El Paso to ensure they weren't further abused. Even 45 years later, in an interview with a professor, the experience made Lucio shudder.
"At the station in Santa Ana, hundreds of Mexicans came and there was quite a lot of crying," he said. "The men were pensive and the majority of the children and mothers were crying." Lucio told the story of how on one trip, when the train didn't stop in El Paso but rather proceeded into Juarez, there was "a terrible cry... many did not want to cross the border ... a disaster, because the majority of the families were separated. There was no way for anyone to try to leave the train or run or complete their desire to return to the United States."
In February of 1933, the Bastanchurys' empire was auctioned from the steps of the Orange County Courthouse and put under new management; within five days, a hundred unemployed white men swarmed the Ranch, confident white ownership would give them a job. The era of the Bastanchury Mexicans was about to end.
Sometime that spring, new management and a consortium of white business, political and civic leaders went to the Ranch's schoolhouse and told the Mexicans they had to leave. "The Americanization centers in which these people had been taught how to buy homes and make themselves a part of the American community," Mackey wrote 18 years later, "were now used for calling together assemblages in which county welfare workers explained to bewildered audiences that their small jobs would now be taken over by the white men, that they were no longer needed nor wanted in these United States." As a last-ditch effort, she paraded her Americanization students in front of a men's civic group as she always had, desperately trying to show that the Bastanchury Mexicans were worthy of staying. But it didn't work.
"And so," she concluded, "one morning we saw nine train-loads of our dear friends roll away back to the windowless, dirt-floored homes we had taught them to despise."
On Friday, March 31, a week after Mackey's efforts, 437 Mexicans—"mostly children," according to the News Tribune, and almost all from the Ranch—were herded onto nine passenger trains, one bound for Nogales, another to Juarez. The local media tried to paint the Mexicans as welfare cases—"Repatriation of Mexicans Eases Burden," read a headline in the Santa Ana Register—and pointed out that the Mexican government promised jobs to their repatriated countrymen upon their return. In reality, the Mexicans were left penniless in a country that parents hadn't visited in years and their American-born children simply didn't know. Few, if any, ever returned to Orange County.
It was the largest mass deportation in county history, and stung those few people who witnessed the episode for the rest of their lives. Lucio recalled they "were very poor...went on the half fare of the Southern Pacific." Juanita Ferraris, granddaughter of Domingo Bastanchury, told the News Tribune in 1955 that it was "one of the saddest sights I've ever seen."
And they departed with work available on the Ranch: in April, the new owners announced in the News Tribune that they were looking for "local men" to hire; in May, they revealed they already shipped 55,000 boxes of lemons in just two months—since the Mexicans left.
The Ranch's six colonias were eradicated; by June of that year, the schoolhouse was moved to another school and turned into a soup kitchen. Houses were either sold off to other citrus camps or simply demolished and tossed back into the scrap heap from where they came. Years later, a Fullerton council member told the COHP that the 1930 census showed that the city had 10,882 residents; in 1940, that figure shrank to 10,300. Bewildered, he admitted, "We finally found out that the reason for the population loss was because we lost the workers up" at the Ranch. Figures from the 1940 census reviewed by the Weekly showed that not a single Mexican listed as living on the Bastanchury's estate in 1930 remained.
Some of the Bastanchury Mexicans, however, did evade the deportation train. One of those was the family of Fullerton resident Cuca Morales. Born in 1927, her birth certificate lists her place of birth as the "Tia Juanita Camp" at the Ranch. Her memories are clouded not by age—her mind is as sharp as someone half her age—but rather by the fact that she was only five when her parents were forced to move away.
At her home, in a housing tract set aside for veterans when she and her husband bought it in the 1950s, Morales keeps many photos from those days. One shows her as a baby, held by her mother, as Cuca's father, who worked as a lemon picker, plays the violin and an unnamed man accompanies him on guitar. In another, she's a toddler standing by her mother's side in a group shot of women who took Mackey's Americanization classes. Behind them, rows of citrus groves stretch over the horizon.
"My grandpa used to be the man who would hold the dances" at the schoolhouse, she says. "I'd stand by him while my mom accepted the money." And she also remembered Maria Bastanchury, the dowager of the Ranch. "She was a stingy lady," the octogenarian says with a laugh. "After workers harvested the walnuts every season, she'd be raking through the leaves, looking for more."
Morales says she only knew of one family repatriated to Mexico, that of her brother's godparents—"and he cried for months after they left," she remembered. Everyone else she knew moved on to other colonias, or the barrios of Santa Ana, La Habra and Anaheim. "My dad wanted to go back to Mexico, but Mom [who was born in Arizona to Mexican immigrants] said, 'No, we're going to stay here—if you want to go, you can.' "
To remain, Morales' parents went to Gaston Bastanchury, who fixed her father's papers—but they still had to leave the Ranch. The family sold their house for a Buick, and they ended up living in La Habra's Alta Vista camp, where Morales grew up before moving to Fullerton, where she raised a family and has lived ever since.
Her parents "never talked about" the disappearance of the Bastanchury Mexican colonias. "I remember one time my mom said that they were poorer on the Ranch. And when I bought my house in Fullerton, she said, 'I don't like Fullerton,' but never said why." Morales kept in contact with former residents of Tia Juana but has never dwelled on its importance. But her daughter Clara—a retired employee of the United Auto Workers—does. "You still have families who came from the Bastanchury Ranch around town," she says. "One time, I was at the bank, and somehow, someone asked [one of the customers] where was she born. 'The Bastanchury Ranch,' she said. It sounded like she was proud that she was from there."
"Most of the people who were born there are dead," Cuca suddenly said.
"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.
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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