A decade ago this week, I wrote “Gunkist Oranges,” a retelling of Orange County’s most brutally suppressed strike: the 1936 Citrus War, in which over 2,500 orange pickers left their jobs to fight for a union, better working conditions and equipment, and higher wages. And for their push for respect? OC’s power structure, from the district attorney’s office to the sheriff’s department, from veterans groups to farmers, united together to brutally, unconstitutionally crush workers.
It’s such a well-known part of OC history that no other media outlet is marking the anniversary except this infernal rag—the Orange County Register would rather devote 3,382 more stories to the opening of Disneyland’s Shanghai shit. The Citrus War is so well-remembered that I’m actually a day late in writing this post. But it remains the most important OC event no one has ever heard of, the one that…wait, why am I repeating what I wrote a decade ago? Imma give you guys the lead right now:
Seventy years ago this week, Orange County’s most brutally suppressed strike began with a bite.
On June 15, 1936, at the break of dawn, about 200 Mexican women gathered in Anaheim to preach the gospel of huelga—strike. Four days earlier, about 2,500 Mexican naranjeros representing more than half of Orange County’s crucial citrus-picking force dropped their clippers, bags and ladders to demand higher wages, better working conditions and the right to unionize. The women spread across the groves of Anaheim, the heart of citrus country, urging workers to let the fruit hang.
Twenty Anaheim police officers confronted the women; they refused to disperse. At some point there was an altercation, and 29-year-old Placentia resident Virginia Torres bit the arm of Anaheim police officer Roger Sherman. Police arrested Torres, along with 30-year-old Epifania Marquez, who tried to yank a strikebreaker—a scab—from a truck by grabbing onto his suspenders.
Little else is known about the Fort Sumter of Orange County—newspaper accounts say only that Torres and Marquez received jail sentences of 60 and 30 days, respectively. But Orange County responded with an organized wrath years in the planning. Growers enlisted the local chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion to guard fields. They evicted families of strikers from their company-owned houses. The English-language press became a bulletin board for the growers—The Santa Ana Register, for instance, described the 200 Mexican women in Anaheim as “Amazons with fire of battle in their eyes.”
Orange County Sheriff Logan Jackson deputized citrus orchard guards and provided them with steel helmets, shotguns and ax handles. The newly minted cops began arresting strikers en masse, more than 250 by strike’s end. When that didn’t stop the strike, they reported workers to federal immigration authorities. When that didn’t work, out came the guns and clubs. Tear gas blossomed in the groves. Mobs of citrus farmers and their supporters attacked under cover of darkness.
What county residents tried to dismiss as a fruitless strike quickly escalated into a full-fledged civil war in which race and class were inseparable. The Mexicans of Orange County, the county’s historical source of cheap labor, were finally asking for better working conditions; their gabacho overlords wouldn’t hear it. And so both sides fought for a month until the lords of Orange County won.
Wonder why Orange County trembles whenever its Mexicans protest? Welcome to the Citrus War of 1936, the most important event in Orange County history you’ve never heard of.
A couple of developments have happened in the decade since I wrote the story. There is now a monument dedicated to OC’s farm labor at the OC Fairgrounds, put there last year at the push of former Orange County Employees Association (and current OC Fairgrounds board member Nick Berardino) after reading my OC Weekly cover. And as I revealed last year in an article on the times of Fred Ross (Cesar Chavez’s mentor) in Orange County, the legendary labor organizer got his first taste of radicalism after seeing his USC classmates act as hired goons during the Citrus War. One wonders if among them was Jimmy Musick, the Todd Spitzer-lookalike at the top photo holding a Tommy gun who’d go on to become OC’s sheriff?
Know your OC Mexican history!