How I Found Out About the Lost Mexicans of the Bastanchury Ranch

If you don't already know, I'll just say it here: we at the Weekly love to tell the hidden history of Orange County, those stories that never made it into the master narrative, whether it's its about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, the Orange County chapter of the Black Panther Party, the Great Flood of 1938, OC's Gabrieleños, or any number of Mexican pioneers. We find these gems just like any other gems: by working our asses off. But I want to take a moment to discuss how I found out about my cover story this week, about a community of hundreds of legal Mexican immigrants and their American-born children that lived on Fullerton's Bastanchury Ranch who were unceremoniously deported 80 years ago last month. It's a tale of footnotes, microfilm, reportorial stupidity, and sheer will that any college student or aspiring writer should read and follow closely.

I first heard about the Bastanchury Mexicans in 2003, after reading an article in the Orange County Register about how then-State Senator Joe Dunn was trying to get an apology passed in the California State Legislature for Mexican-Americans repatriated during the 1930s. The Reg only had a throwaway mention, one that immediately piqued my interest. How could a whole community of Mexicans just get tossed out—and why would the Reg just sum it up in half a sentence?

It wasn't just the paper, though: they got the info from Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930s, a 1995 book by Francisco Balderrama and Raymond Rodríguez documenting the episode. There, they gave two sentences to the episode—that's it. And these guys are the authorities on the subject—and if they couldn't dig up more facts, I assumed, no one could.

The Bastanchury Mexicans story stuck with me over the next decade, as I tackled other Gunkist memories. I did discover that Gilbert Gonzalez' magisterial Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County, 1900-1950 had a little bit more on the subject, but not much. Then in 2010, after the Weekly hosted a seminar on the Alex Bernal civil rights case, a man went up to me and, unprovoked, told me he was born on the Bastanchury Ranch. WTF? I excitedly jotted down his information…and summarily lost it. I couldn't even remember the man's name, and the story became a Moby Dick for me, one I would frequently bemoan to colleagues.

Flash-forward to three weeks ago. I have a feature hole to fill. I figured it was time to tackle my Moby Dick—why the hell not? With no info whatsoever? I got in contact with Fullerton intellectual-around-town Jesse La Tour, who I knew had found oral histories mentioning the Bastanchury Ranch. He hooked me up with them, and the story slowly starts unfolding. I realized I had enough for a feature, but still didn't have two crucial details: someone who was alive when the mass deportation happened, and the date of said deportation. So right at the end of my latest “Gustavo's Awesome Lecture Series!,” I did something I never do: tip my hand on a story by publicly asking if anyone knew anyone born on the Ranch, to contact me.

A man came up to me. “That guy at the back of the room? He might know someone.” The man's name was Bobby Melendez, and he's the gentleman who introduced me to Cuca Morales, the Fullerton resident born on the Ranch who plays a key part of my story.

But I still couldn't find the date. The fine ladies at the Fullerton Public Library brought out all their Bastanchury materials—nothing. They let me go through the microfilm of the Fullerton News Tribune, which I spent five hours on one day—nothing. By now, I had to write my story—deadlines. But the date bugged me—I knew it was somewhere in the microfilm, hidden. So just last Thursday, I returned to the Library, determined to find it—and finally did! I'd show ustedes the clipping, but the Register owns the copyright, and they don't much like me right now. It confirmed everything I had read from the oral histories—the nine trainloads of Mexicans, the tears, the castigating of the Bastanchury Mexicans as welfare cases. And, with date in hand, I was able to find more info by matching it with other local newspapers.

Moral of the story, kiddies? Research—research, research, research. Never stop. Follow your hunches. Never lose the contact info for sources. And never forget.

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