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California Dreaming

California Dreaming: Chukou Thao, Hmong Farmer

Co-published by The Nation
Chukou Thao is president of the National Hmong American Farmers, an association based on the outskirts of Fresno, in California’s Central Valley.

Sasha Abramsky

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Photo by Joanne Kim

Co-published by The Nation

Chukou Thao is president of the National Hmong American Farmers, an association based on the outskirts of Fresno, in California’s Central Valley.


What, for you, does California represent?

California is the melting pot of all ethnicities, all diversity, all cultures. And it starts at the roots of those groups of people through agriculture.

We moved out to California from Madison, Wisconsin, years ago, to have the opportunity to farm, to have an independent lifestyle, to chase the American Dream. We came from Laos to the United States after the Vietnam War. I was 6 years old. We moved to Fresno when I was 12. My parents had limited English, limited job skills, worked at minimum-wage jobs. The family came to California during the Hmong New Year and loved it, went back and packed up and came here. It was more community oriented. And farming was a big piece of why everyone moved here in the early ’80s. When we first moved here, a lot of the crops the Asian growers are growing now weren’t being grown. Bitter melon, Thai chili pepper, Thai eggplant. These were names that the packing houses in town never knew till the Hmong moved here.

Farming takes you back to the basics, the basics of survival. It gives people an opportunity to add to life. When you put a seed in the ground and you see it sprout up, bear fruit, you see it utilized. I f anybody has been on a tractor in the middle of a cold day, and feel the breeze, they know they’re doing something that adds purpose. There’s a history, a story to each one of those fruits and vegetables. Seed passing, that’s cultural. You have rice seeds, fruit and vegetable seeds — only when you’re close enough will others share that history with you. I just love the people, the people are genuine, they’re sincere, their hearts are in the right place. Their smiles. On the farm, you spend a lot of time by yourself, doing things on your own. You drive up, meet them, the smile on their face says everything. It takes you back to the old times, when a man’s word was a man’s word. It’s time travel. It’s not a piece of paper, it’s a man’s spoken word.

Photo: Joanne KimPhoto: Joanne Kim

Where do you see California’s place in the modern-day American story?

California is, and will continue to be, the leader in many, many things that we do. You don’t realize how much effect we have on this country until you start to travel. So many things come out of California. The California Dream is the diversity. And we embrace it, we accept it, we live with it. I don’t ever see it as a negative. The diversity is everywhere. You go to the farmers’ markets and you see the ethnic food, the ethnic crops, the ethnic people. We don’t think much of it, but you don’t see it elsewhere.

When you tell friends or relatives who live somewhere else about California, how do you explain this state?

People explain it to me. They tell me how fast we talk, how fast we walk, how fast we do things. They talk about how competitive Californians are, how everyone’s always pushing to move forward. In other states, we don’t tell people to hurry; it’s a little bit slower. Everything in California is magnified, from our success to our failures, from how we do things to how we speak to how we get along with others. The bar’s been set. We hold ourselves to higher standards. That’s something to be proud of. The diversity forces us — allows us  — to be anybody we want to be, and at the same time to accept who we are.

If you move from a country that’s war-torn to a safer place, [like] Wisconsin, then you look for the next opportunity, a warmer place. That’s California. Warmer means the climate, but it also means the soul, a place you can belong to, that’s home, where your people gather, where your culture is celebrated. Difference is what makes us better. Difference in skin color, background, philosophy, lifestyle. That’s what is needed to create a home as a whole. If you don’t have that diversity in the way you see things and embrace the change, the differences, you don’t grow as a person. What you dream, you can become; what you want, you can have. It’s a theme, a philosophy of life, a way of living. I am always optimistic. We’re just human beings, with a different shade, a different appearance. But inside we all strive for the same things: peace, love, respect, family.

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California Dreaming

California Dreaming in the Age of Trump

Co-published by The Nation
How do Californians see themselves and their state in this strange and dangerous historical moment? Capital & Main explores this question through the words of 10 Californians from very different racial, economic and geographic backgrounds.

Sasha Abramsky

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Co-published by The Nation

The day after the presidential election, Kevin de León and Anthony Rendon, the leaders of California’s two legislative bodies, issued an extraordinary joint statement. “Today,” it began, “we woke up feeling like strangers in a foreign land, because yesterday Americans expressed their views on a pluralistic and democratic society that are clearly inconsistent with the values of the people of California. We have never been more proud to be Californians. By a margin in the millions, Californians overwhelmingly rejected politics fueled by resentment, bigotry and misogyny.” It ended with this observation: “California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.”

That sense of the American Dream, in the Trump era, having taken up a defensive position on the West Coast is one widely shared. Commentators and reporters here and abroad have, over the past several months, repeatedly pointed to California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii, and to the great coastal cities from San Diego to Seattle, as the shield-wall of resistance to the Trumpian agenda. With the rest of the country turning its back on refugees, immigrants, the poor and the otherwise vulnerable, progressives have turned their gaze westward in search of a more welcoming and tolerant vision.

California has long danced to its own tune, a vast state that has created a distinctive culture and way of living. It was, for the mid-20th-century writer Carey McWilliams, “the great exception.” Today, it remains a place apart — a state blessed by extraordinary geographic diversity, by flourishing cities as well as remote rural enclaves, and by booming, innovative industries.

Yet it has not always been a politically progressive state. In the 1970s, California’s voters passed Proposition 13 and paved the way for the nationwide anti-tax revolts of the past generation. In the early 1990s, voters embraced harsh criminal justice measures such as the Three Strikes and You’re Out sentencing law.

On racial issues, the state has a long history of nativism. In the 1880s, much of California’s population was fiercely opposed to Chinese immigrants and in the early 1940s the state strongly supported the internment of Japanese-Americans. In the 1920s some of the most active Ku Klux Klan chapters in the country were found in Southern California. During World War II, the Zoot Suit Riots pitted white military servicemen and police against young Latino men. And in the 1990s, the state was at the forefront of efforts to curb the rights of undocumented immigrants to vital public services such as education for children.

In recent years, however, the three Pacific Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington — all of whose electorates have been hugely impacted by great waves of immigration and by immigrants-rights organizing efforts, as well as by issue-specific organizing around labor rights, the environment and other critical policies — have shifted dramatically toward something like a social-democratic vision of the inclusive society. As a result, they are far to the left of most of the country on a range of issues, from health-care access to environmental regulations, from public transit investments and minimum-wage legislation, through to the treatment of undocumented residents and the guaranteeing of rights for the LGBTQ community.

In 2017, with much of the country turning inwards, and with xenophobia and white nationalism on the march, the three Pacific Coast states stand tall as beacons of tolerance and diversity.

How do Californians see themselves and their state in this strange and dangerous historical moment? What values do they seek to protect and to promote? What visions of the future do they seek to realize? How do they relate to their environments, both rural and urban, to their neighbors and to the broader community of which they are a part?

With our new series, Capital & Main will tell the story of California in the Age of Trump. We will narrate this moment through the words of 10 Californians — men and women from different racial backgrounds, from different economic circumstances, from different geographic regions. Obviously, no one set of oral history interviews can fully capture the complexity of a state populated by nearly 40 million people and spread over tens of thousands of square miles. We do hope, however, that these 10 people will speak to the concerns and to the hopes of their fellow Californians.

In an era of pessimism, when tens of millions of Americans are drawn to Donald Trump’s dark “American carnage” message, California represents a countervailing force. It is a place of optimism, of light in a dark time. It is a space for spiritual resistance during a shockingly authoritarian period in the country’s history.


See List of Sasha Abramsky’s Interviews

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California Dreaming

Video: California Dreaming

A video by Marco Amador capturing the optimism of Californians in a time of uncertainty.

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California Dreaming

California Still Dreams of Tomorrow

Today we hear from 10 Californians who were interviewed by Sasha Abramsky and who articulate what it means to live in the Golden State at a time when the basic foundations of community life and personal happiness are threatened by a toxic political climate.

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Photo by Joanne Kim

Today we hear from 10 Californians who were interviewed by Sasha Abramsky and photographed by Joanne Kim. In varying ways these people articulate what it means to be living in the Golden State at a time when the basic foundations of community life and personal happiness are threatened by a toxic political climate. Abramsky spoke to a spectrum of ages, professions and ethnic backgrounds, finding in them all a resilient faith in the future. We visited:

Lynnae and David Evans She specializes in Japanese history and is a seventh-generation Californian. He is a pioneering expert in the field of computational linguistics and a first-generation Californian, a migrant from St. Louis. They live in a large house, the interior decorated in a Japanese motif, in Menlo Park.

Will Scott The president of the African-American Farmers of California spoke in the living room of his ranch house outside Fresno.

Justino Mora is a DREAM Act activist and cofounder of undocumedia.org

Lydia Avila is a young Boyle Heights-based community organizer with California Calls, an alliance of 31 social justice organizations across the state that conducts voter-engagement campaigns.

Evan Minton Formerly a staffer at the Capitol in Sacramento, he recently transitioned from female to male and co-chairs the state Democratic Party’s LGBT Caucus.

Chukou Thao is president of the National Hmong American Farmers, an association based in Fresno, in California’s Central Valley.

Stephanie Honig lives in Napa with her husband and their children. The family’s winery is known both for the quality of its produce and for its sustainable methods.

Libby Maynard She is an artist who has lived in the town of Eureka, in the far north of the state, for half a century. She runs an art cooperative called Ink People.

Joe Mathews  A syndicated journalist and connoisseur of all things California, he currently lives in Los Angeles and is the California and Innovation Editor of the Zócalo Public Square website.

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California Dreaming

California Dreaming: Lynnae and David Evans, Native and Immigrant

She specializes in Japanese history and is a seventh-generation Californian. He is a pioneering expert in the field of computational linguistics and a first-generation Californian, a migrant from St. Louis.

Sasha Abramsky

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She specializes in Japanese history and is a seventh-generation Californian. He is a pioneering expert in the field of computational linguistics and a first-generation Californian, a migrant from St. Louis. They live in a large house, the interior decorated with a Japanese motif, in Menlo Park.


Lynnae, you have a seven-generation history in this state. Tell me about your family.

Lynnae: My grandfather’s family came from Missouri, the great-great-great-great grandfather’s name was Hugh Harrison Bell. He and his wife and seven children got together covered wagons with several other families, and they made their way across the plains. But something catastrophic happened to them in Utah. I don’t know the details, but I believe they lost some of their animals and maybe even some of the wagons. So they had to walk much of the way into California. My great-great-great-grandmother was 7 years old. She made that walk over the Sierra Nevada. When they arrived they were exhausted. They stopped almost the first place they could, which was Amador County. I think Hugh Harrison Bell was interested in becoming a gold miner but realized the difficulties of doing that. So he became a judge. He had some education, maybe that was rare then. His wife, who was pregnant on this trip, gave birth to a baby in Amador County. And the baby died, and the mother died as well. [Then] Hugh’s youngest child was bitten by a black spider, maybe a black widow, and that child died.

My grandmother’s family was from northern Germany and they came about 10 years later through New York City. I don’t know how they got to California — they didn’t have the Transcontinental Railroad. That side of my family got a land grant, 640 acres, in Escalon, between Stockton and Modesto. Their last name was von Glahn. That land was divided between their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. So by the time I was a child and spent all my summers on this ranch, it only had 26 or 27 acres, and my grandparents lived there.

One of my [other] ancestors lived in Maine. The son, George Farrow, fought in the Civil War, [was] from the little isle of Isleboro, Maine. And he was killed in Virginia in 1862, leaving behind a 20-year-old wife and a tiny baby girl, who then was renamed after him, Georgie Farrow. The wife, I think several years after the war ended, decided there was really no opportunity for her to either meet other men or have any kind of life of her own on this tiny island, so she got on a ship to Panama and crossed Panama on the back of a mule, and then got on a boat and went to Sacramento. Then went inland, where she became a nurse. This was probably about 1867 or 1868. There she met a man and married, and as soon as the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, she took it back to Maine to pick up her little girl, who was now about 10 and living with her grandparents, and took her back to California.

My grandmother, the child of Georgie Farrow, was very interested in her own family history. She collected lots of newspaper articles and documents, and she interviewed people and started to put together a family history, which my mother then continued, and I’ve also continued. I just find it fascinating, to try to understand why people would leave a fairly comfortable set of circumstances and take the chance to go far away and to start all over again. After 1849, [California] was just seen as a land of opportunity. There was land to be had, there was gold to be dug.

David: For a period of time they were giving away sections of land.

Lynnae: You had to pay something for a section of land, but it wasn’t very much. You had to promise to develop the land. If you came from a tiny little village in Germany where land was scarce and there wasn’t much opportunity, this must have seemed like a dream. But why did the Bells leave Missouri to go to California? That I find very hard to understand. I guess the lure of gold brought them. But for somebody to pack up everything, with seven children, and wagons, and make that trip, when they must have known there were all sorts of dangers along the way, and then to suffer what they suffered when they came to California, the loss of wife and baby and small child, I can’t imagine how hard that must have been.

Lynnae (continued): As a small child, I spent all the harvest seasons with my grandparents. They had walnuts. This was my grandparents’ retirement job; they had lived in the Bay Area most of their lives, where my grandfather was a teamster, driving a truck.

My grandparents lost a child in World War II. He was killed in Germany at the very end of the war and they had a lot of animosity towards Germans and to Japanese. [But] my grandparents were really very loving people. In 1950, when I was 5 years old, two Japanese farmers came to live with them during the harvest season. Neither of them spoke any English. My grandparents did not speak Japanese. We lived in a very tiny farmhouse with a very tiny bathroom, just a stall of a shower and toilet.

There were nine people living in that tiny little house with that one bathroom. My grandmother would cook for us all every day, and we would go out and help my grandfather pick up the walnuts. And in the evening we’d all come back. The two Japanese men always slept on the front porch. Every year, from 1950 to 1959, Japanese came to our house to help during the harvest season. And they gave my grandparents amazing gifts. I think they brought their family heirlooms, things like ancient tea ceremony sets, and old masks, and obis that tied kimonos up. From the time I was a small child, I became very interested in Japanese art and textures, and colors and designs.

I never understood why those Japanese farmers came to help us, until I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, and took a course on Japanese history, and came to understand MacArthur completely reorganized Japan after World War II. One of the things he did was take the huge landholdings, and divide them into small units, 20, 30 acres, which were then given to returning soldiers. Part of the fear was Japan would become communist, and if you give soldiers little bits of land, it connects them to capitalism, gives them something to conserve.

But these returning soldiers weren’t farmers! Someone got the idea that Japanese farmers should come to the U.S., live with American farmers. They had no contact with the U.S. and probably had very negative feelings about Americans. I know my family had very negative feelings about Japan.

Having Japanese live with them opened their eyes to many things. They came to understand that people are people no matter where they are from. My grandparents really hated Germans, so much more than the Japanese. When I was in high school, I was an American Field Service student. AFS send me to Germany, to Nuremberg, in 1961. I lived with a German family that I became very close to. The thought I would be going into that [onetime] hotbed of Nazism was really painful for my grandparents. [But] when this German girl came to stay with my family a couple years later, my grandparents received her with their usual graciousness. In a way this was America and California at its best. For all of the tensions, this country historically, over the 20th century, got pretty good at working out ways for different races and groups to come together to understand each other.

I was at Berkeley in 1964. When the Free Speech Movement occurred, there were pickets placed around all of the classes. We were told we shouldn’t cross those lines. I called my father, who was a Republican, and I said, “You’ll never guess what’s going on at Berkeley, but there’s a Free Speech Movement and we’re being encouraged not to go to class.” He said, “You need to go to class.” I called my grandfather, and he said: “You never cross a picket line, you find out what the issues are and you support them.” My grandfather had supported the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] and the Teamsters’ union and he always felt he couldn’t vote for FDR because FDR was too conservative. He voted for the socialist candidate.

David, your family was in St. Louis. What drew you westward?

David: I’d been to California a couple of times before I came here as a student. I was affected like a lot of people who came to California in the 1950s. It was Disneyland, it was exciting, it was wonderful and beautiful. I first came in 1956. I would have been 8 years old. In those days it was driving across the country on Route 66. California announces itself long before you arrive anywhere. It’s a long stretch across New Mexico and Arizona into California, and the landscape heralds what you’re going to encounter when you drive into California. And I was awake, staring out the car window and drinking it in. Hundreds of miles of it. I saw horizons that seemed to go on forever. Incredible sunsets. Colors on the sand in the desert. Roads that were straight for 50 miles. There was nothing like that in St. Louis. I saw dry expanses. A place without lots of trees and green was new for me. Coming into California, the transformation of the desert scene into the suburban fringes of L.A. was dramatic. Everything was newer then. Even areas considered less attractive today were brand spanking new and beautiful. It was one of the greatest vacations I could possibly have imagined. We drove north on Highway One. These are iconic experiences, to experience Highway One, a gorgeous drive, slow going, but every moment well worth it. Stopping at places along the way, and then hitting the San Francisco Bay Area. We drove into Yosemite. It seemed to me one of the great places of the world.

I was very interested in science, technology, math when I was in high school and even before. For many, many years I had imagined I wanted to go to MIT. It sounded to me like the citadel. It was only very late in the game that a relative of mine, who was a physician here in the Bay Area, called my attention to Stanford. I applied more casually than to other places I applied. I got into MIT. I was headed that way till I began to read the Stanford brochures. At that time it looked to me like the MIT catalog was a lot of stuff I had to do rather than offering me a lot of options with electives and alternative career choices. The Stanford catalog talked about overseas studies and seminars that could be self-directed.

You end up in California at this moment when California becomes the epicenter of the counterculture, student activism, music, poetry, art. Today that’s still part of California mythology — the Summer of Love, etc. What was it like during that period?

David: In retrospect we can appreciate it a lot more than when we went through it. I was not seduced by some of the things that a lot of people found irresistible during that period. I wasn’t over the top about the music scene or the more radical student manifestations, organizations. I was interested in the ideas and explored them, and certainly my sensibilities were in alignment with where that movement was going. It led me to think hard about the war in Vietnam. I became a conscientious objector.

Were you, David, doing computational linguistics at the time?

David: Not during that period. I was interested in chemistry, and ended up with a minor in chemistry. But once I got to the university I discovered so many interesting fields and was bound to explore them all. I wouldn’t say this was typical, but my philosophy was, “Find things you might feel you’re not naturally strong at and study those – that’ll make you stronger. Then indulge yourself in the things you really do like to do.” I ended up doing one undergraduate degree in English lit and another in German intellectual history, simultaneously. And I also did an undergrad degree in mathematical sciences. Stanford offered the opportunity to go to Germany as part of an overseas program. I went as a sophomore and spent six months at a Stanford campus in southern Germany. I learned about a program in Japan and thought, “Wow, I’ll try that too.” That was the program through which I met Lynnae — 1968. She was my teacher.

Why is California so different, for you, from the rest of the country?

David: I think the rise of centers of excellence in California created a momentum and introduced a certain kind of hope. The rise of engineering in Silicon Valley, beginning in the ’30s, and continuing in the Cold War, created a hotbed of activity around science and technology that over time, and through various evolutionary cycles, brought us to where we are today, where the Silicon Valley Olympus is at the forefront of most tech innovations that we see happening around the world. It’s good for the economy of the place, but it also creates its own mythology. That mythology has not been specifically partisan. It’s not ideological, it’s meritocratic. And while a meritocracy can create winners and losers, there’s something fundamentally decent about the idea that people with talent can find a place where they can spread their wings. In general good things happen when you get a lot of people together who have that attitude.

What was great about Stanford, particularly in the ’70s and early ’80s, was that people were not locked into disciplinary silos. Individuals could cross disciplinary boundaries and engage others to look at hybrid solutions. People in computer science were sitting in on philosophy courses. People in philosophy were sitting in on operations research courses. This made it possible for many different perspectives to be brought to bear on things that were otherwise very difficult if not intractable problems. That’s a spirit that lives on today.

At Stanford you had the feeling that anything you wanted to do was okay, just do it. And the administration made you feel you were capable enough that you could find out what is right through your own devices. “You don’t need us to tell you. We believe all you guys are going to be capable; get to know each other, explore ideas, we’re not going to tell you what you need to do.” That was refreshing for me. That’s the environment we need to create socially, culturally in the U.S., that we’ve lost.

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California Dreaming

California Dreaming: Will Scott, Sharecropper’s Son

Co-published by The Nation
Will Scott is president of the African-American Farmers of California. He spoke in the living room of his ranch house just outside Fresno.

Sasha Abramsky

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Photo by Joanne Kim

Co-published by The Nation

Will Scott is president of the African-American Farmers of California. He spoke in the living room of his ranch house just outside Fresno.

You’ve been in California over 60 years since your family migrated from Idabel, Oklahoma. Why did they come here?

I had an uncle who fought in the war. When he came back, he went to Fresno. Three years later, my father migrated to California. He sent for us. We came out in 1952. My grandfather and he, they were sharecroppers. Most of the blacks were migrating up to Oakland, to the shipyards and other plants. Some people settled in Tulare, some in Fresno, some moved to Madera. Near the 99, close to where the railroad was.

We came here and worked in the fields. The first job we did as a family was cut grapes. We came here in August, grape-cutting season. It was dirty, but you could make some money to feed the family. Being in the country, the school I went to allowed you to stay out an extra two weeks to help the farmer get stuff in. I’d take the last two weeks [pay] I made and that’s what I bought my school clothes with. When I turned 13, I would go down on Saturdays to Chinatown and catch the labor bus and go work. Out in the fields. Chopping cotton, picking fruit.

Fresno was okay for us. I went to school here, played sports. Then I was drafted into the service. Vietnam. I was in almost five years – I came back in 1966. I’m the oldest of 15. I came back to make sure my sisters and brothers was taken care of. I interviewed with the telephone company. They hired me to go onto the toll transmission department. I got credit for 33 years and 10 months —  I was able to retire early. During that time I’d bought five acres and was growing stuff for myself. I had a brother help me – when I was at work he’d take care of the farm. We were growing black-eyed peas, tomatoes, okra, mustard and collard greens. We used some for the family, sold most of it to people in the community. We went to Los Angeles, to a farmers market. Then we split up, he went south I went north. I’ve been going to the Bay Area for the last 20-something years. Every week, every Saturday.

What were race relations like when you moved here?

You realized that California was more settled by whites from the South. They came out here when they had the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. We came out here and you’re still dealing with the people who had that mindset and thought you’re not as equal as they are. Discrimination, especially in Fresno. There’s places you couldn’t go. You’d be arrested by the police or you’re harassed by them. My mother, she kept a close tab on me, said I had to be home by a certain hour. I’d be stopped by the police. My father, he says they had a law – that by sundown you had to be on this side of the tracks, you couldn’t be in town. The same practices they had back South, they was implementing here in California. California had more Jim Crow laws on the books than Alabama did.

Things started slowly changing. The light was put on some of the practices. People became a little more savvy. A lot of people in California, they wanted to do right, figured everybody should have equal opportunities. People are a lot more comfortable now with each other.

Photo: Joanne KimPhoto: Joanne Kim

What’s the California Dream?

We’re very innovative out here, especially in technology. And we’re the number one Ag center in this world. We have the most diversity as far as I’m concerned. I believe in diversity. This whole United States is full of immigrants.

When I lived in Oklahoma, there was three cultures: black, white and Native American. Those other cultures were people I saw in the world geography book. You can see how amazed I was when school started and I’m sitting in the class with people from a foreign country. Parents from Germany, Russia, Armenia and also Mexico. Here I am sitting in the class with them.

The sixthgrade teacher, she was a wonderful lady. She’s the one that really kind of helped me out. When I finished up at elementary school, at that time they were putting blacks in mediocre classes, general ed classes. She told them, “He has the qualifications, he could be college material. You need to put him in college preparatory classes.” They did. That’s why I had to take Latin, biology, the mathematical classes.

Did you ever think of living somewhere else?

I liked Fresno, it was laid back and not fast-moving. I liked the open space. I took a rendering class at Fresno State, an artist’s class; we did paintings, watercolors, acrylics. You get a close-up look of how beautiful things are in California; you’ve got the ocean, the mountains, the Valley. Yosemite. Also, going to Monterey, going down that 17-Mile Drive and just looking at the ocean. In the [Central] Valley, we have about 350 different varieties of vegetables. That’s due to the diversity of the people, the immigrants who come in and bring their native crops with them.

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California Dreaming

California Dreaming: Justino Mora, Immigrant Activist

Co-published by The Nation
Justino Mora is a DREAMER and cofounder of undocumedia.org.

Sasha Abramsky

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Photo by Joanne Kim

Co-published by The Nation

Justino Mora is a DREAMER and cofounder of undocumedia.org.


Tell me about your story.

I came to the U.S. when I was 11, with my siblings and mom. We came to escape poverty and domestic violence. I came from a really small town about 18 miles north of Mexico City.

We came undocumented. My mom told us there was no way we could get visas. I crossed the border in Texas. We came with the perspective that things are going to be better here. There’s justice for all in California — equality for all, more rights for people. Here, the rights of every human being are respected. That’s what we learned in Mexico. But in the first couple months I realized that wasn’t the case. I experienced racism as an 11 year old. At one point, a middle school here in California didn’t want to accept my sister and me because we didn’t know English. I knew from that point on things would be really difficult for us. For me it was okay, one more extra challenge. It didn’t discourage me, it was just a fact of life I had to overcome.

My activism started in community college. Before that I was really focused on school. In community college I became interested in politics, about the time Obama was [first] running. One of my friends was also undocumented. She was one of the first persons I’d met who was not only undocumented but public about it. She was comfortable telling the class, “Hey, I’m undocumented.” She got me involved in the movement, with immigrant rights organizations. I got involved with the California Dream Network, CHIRLA [Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles], United We Dream and other local and national organizations that advocate for human and immigrant rights. I worked on the Dream Act campaign in 2010. I went to Washington, DC and was able to organize with other undocumented students. I realized, ”Wow, this is a huge movement.” It really motivated me to do more in California. When the Dream Act failed in 2010, I decided to come back to California.

Photo: Joanne KimPhoto: Joanne Kim

We launched the campaign to pressure the California state Assembly and Senate, and Governor Brown, to pass the California Dream Act. By July 2011, the first half had been signed by Jerry Brown. By October the second half had been signed. It opened the door to undocumented students so they could go to higher education and access state financial aid. That’s how I was able to go back to school, to UCLA and finish my degree. It made me feel proud of California. We were able to pass [laws granting] drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants, the Trust Act that places restrictions on how police departments can interact with immigration officials, we passed legislation to expand health coverage for undocumented children, laws to protect the rights of undocumented workers.

California learned from its past, from the 1990s, when Governor Pete Wilson and legislators passed hateful anti-immigrant legislation. The people [later] realized this was wrong. We spent more than a decade organizing and managed to turn California into a pro-immigrant, pro-human rights state, and now we’re seen as champions, as leaders in this resistance against the Trump administration and what he represents.

Do you ever get scared, being undocumented?

There’s a term we use, “coming out of the shadows.” We borrowed that term from the LGBTQ community. We learn from those movements. We use the same phrase to get rid of that fear. To tell the public, “I’m undocumented, not because I want to be, but because of the broken immigration system that keeps people oppressed.” At the current moment I am concerned with the political climate that we see. I am concerned for other people who have not come out of the shadows, who live in other states that are not as pro-immigrant as California. Through UndocuMedia we have been able to see that rise of hate, on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. We see people being more open about their racism, their xenophobia. Trump has legitimized that platform, that agenda. I want to say that I’m not scared — but being realistic, I am just a little bit scared. This is the new reality we live in.

Where do you see California 20 years from now, when you’re in middle-age?

Given the progress we have made in the last 15 years, I do see it as one of the leaders in the world in advancing social and economic justice for everyone. I see California leading in protecting the environment, being more conscious of the things we eat. I see it as a leader in every single field where we want to see progress — real, meaningful, positive progress. I see a new California where we reject fossil fuels, where we reject a violation of human rights, of civil rights — a California more welcoming to minorities, to everyone else.

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California Dreaming

California Dreaming: Lydia Avila, Organizer

Co-published by The Nation
Lydia Avila is a young Boyle Heights-based community organizer with California Calls, an alliance of 31 social justice organizations across the state that conducts voter-engagement campaigns.

Sasha Abramsky

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Photo by Joanne Kim

 

Co-published by The Nation

Lydia Avila is a young Boyle Heights-based community organizer with California Calls, an alliance of 31 social justice organizations across the state that conducts voter-engagement campaigns.


How did you become an organizer?

I grew up in Boyle Heights, which is now 97 percent Latino. In my time it was probably more segregated that that. My high school was 99.7 percent Latino when I attended.

I still live in the community — born and raised, never left. I really value that. It’s part of the core of my organizing. I’ve seen so much injustice, suffering, exploitation. But we’re going to put our families first, leave our children with something better than what we had. That’s still the case for me. I want something better for my kids. This is why I fight. This is why my mom left everything behind in her country to come here.

Does this period in history scare you?

At first [after the election] I was very afraid. After the election, I took my kids to a march, in downtown Los Angeles. It was near the end of the march. There was a big white truck and the people in it yelled, “Build the wall!” at me and my kids. My son, he’s only 10, he yelled a cuss word back.

What does your work involve?

I am an organizer – and have done housing rights organizing, affordable housing advocacy, educational justice organizing. It’s all been based in my community. That’s how I got involved in California Calls, to understand how we needed to have a statewide strategy to really create the change to address systemic problems in our community. I’ve been around a lot of organizers, like Anthony Thigpenn, Dolores Huerta, who understand we need to not just fight defensive battles, but we need to have a longterm view of what it is we want to achieve.

When we won Proposition 30, which secured about $9 billion in funding for education annually, I knew it was an important fight – [the money] would be going directly to kids in my neighborhood who could one day go to college and not have the slum housing they live in now. Right now I don’t want kids in my neighborhood to live in slum housing. I could go and do tenants rights work, but that won’t solve the problem of having few opportunities to go to college and having a good paying job with benefits and living a healthy life.

What is the California Dream?

It’s definitely linked to a state that pushes bold policies forward — free education, universal health care. A situation where every young person in California knows they’re being set up to succeed. That they live in communities where they can thrive, where they aren’t afraid of their families being split up because they’re being imprisoned or because of immigration. That they have good quality jobs, safe neighborhoods and good schools. That’s what my dream is. I am only 33 years old. I know we have planted a lot of seeds across the state through this work, where people are turning cynicism into action. So keep tweeting, Trump.

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California Dreaming

California Dreaming: Evan Minton, Capitol Pioneer

Co-published by The Nation
Evan Minton, a one-time staffer at the Capitol in Sacramento, recently transitioned from female to male. He is currently co-chair of the state Democratic Party’s LGBT Caucus.

Sasha Abramsky

Published

on

Photo by Joanne Kim

Co-published by The Nation

Evan Minton, a one-time staffer at the Capitol in Sacramento, recently transitioned from female to male. He is currently co-chair of the state Democratic Party’s LGBT Caucus.


What does California mean to you?

It means safe to me. It means I live in a place that is much more accepting than other parts of the country — where, as a transgender gentleman, my life could very well be at risk. That’s not to say that in California we don’t have our enclaves or really conservative areas and really conservative individuals, but at least our rights are protected in terms of the law, and our state seems to be more progressive on these issues.

Being transgendered — I’m 35 years old now — I came to the realization that was who I am when I was 29. I had no clue that’s who I was before. I was in a production of the Vagina Monologues. We had to pull back layers and layers of ourselves. I read the part of a transgendered woman. I was going through a phase where I would fall in love and have my heart broken, and then I’d rinse and repeat. It was an endless cycle. And so I knew there was something underneath that I needed to address. The production of the Vagina Monologues just brought it forward. As soon as it did, I was like, “This is it.” There was a particular time, I was coming home from work and it was raining and I was crying. I pulled over at a gas station, called my mom. She said, “Honey, in all my years of living I’ve never had to question my gender. If this is something you have to question then it’s something you have to explore.”

I have a tremendous support system here, made up of coworkers, colleagues, some good friends. I used to work at the state Capitol, but then I quit to take care of my medical issues. It was a wonderful community. People pulled together for me like never before. I was astounded by how many people supported me, and told me I was courageous. I organized the first Trans 101 workshop at the Capitol. I generated the first all-gender, multi-stall restrooms at the Capitol. I had a bunch of different surgeries recently, transition-related. I’ve been very open about my story, posts on Facebook that are really raw and honest. In response to that, people have been open and supportive of me.

Photo: Joanne KimPhoto: Joanne Kim

You live in California, which compared to elsewhere in the country comes off as a relatively safe haven or protected space. Is that right?

I live in a fairly conservative area. It’s not safe everywhere. I had a friend who grew up in a rural part of California, and people had guns and would threaten him. He was gay. We’re not all safe. I feel like if my neighbors knew that I was transgendered they might have a problem with me. Even here in midtown, when I identified as gay, two of my neighbors had a problem with me. We’re not all safe and not all protected, but probably more so in California than elsewhere in the nation.

You’ve got the country moving in one direction, and California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii moving in a totally different direction. Is that emblematic of a bigger schism?

It’s like a pulling apart. From what I can read, in North Carolina, with HB2 — regarding many things, but among them the restroom issues for trans folk — it’s just illustrative of the dynamic we’re in right now. There’s a schism, it’s a really unique time in history for us trans folk. With the Trump administration, my god, it puts us all in disarray and at risk. And with the Muslim ban, LGBT folks who are Muslim, if they’re not able to seek asylum when they need it, they have to go back to these countries that can be heinous to them.

What do you hope California will become over the coming years?

I hope that we will actively fight the repressive actions of the national politics, of the Trump administration. I hope we can be a beacon of light and we can lead the nation in that way. I hope we can serve as an example to other states with our progressive laws, progressive legislation, and I hope that they can be duplicated and even surpassed.

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California Dreaming

California Dreaming: Stephanie Honig, In the Vineyard of Change

Stephanie Honig lives in Napa with her husband and their children. The family’s winery is known both for the quality of its produce and for its sustainable methods.

Sasha Abramsky

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Photo by Joanne Kim

Stephanie Honig lives in Napa with her husband and their children. The family’s winery is known both for the quality of its produce and for its sustainable methods.


What, for you, is Napa and California, both as places and as states of mind?

There are a few things that set the wine business, and Napa, and California apart. One is the sense of community. I lived in New York, Florida, Philadelphia, Buenos Aires — I’ve never been in a place with such a strong sense of community; people working together, coming together for business, for personal causes, for education, for agriculture, for everything. I want to believe it’s the California way. We all come together, we’ll be stronger.

Napa only produces four percent of the wine made in California; but it accounts for 35 percent of the value. It’s a very small place, but a very prestigious place. There are other great winemaking regions in the world. But people come here for the family story, the quality of the wines and because they love Napa.

Photo by Joanne KimPhoto by Joanne Kim

I feel really, really lucky. I never thought I’d live in a vineyard. I’ve always lived in big cities. It just so happened I ended up dating a guy who ran this family business and moved out here. I hated it here – the quiet and the pace. But now I love it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

We’re known as one of the leaders in sustainable practices. Organics is great, it limits the use of pesticides and herbicides in the vineyard. Our asset here is the land; that’s what we live off. If we don’t take care of it, our kids aren’t going to have it. We feel it is our duty to pay it forward if we can. Going back to the California mentality, there is something to be said about the progressiveness in California “How can we improve, what can we do better?” That mentality of always moving forward. Trying to think out of the box.

We’re a quality winery. We only make sauvignon  blanc and cabernet sauvignon. But we also want to be fun. We take our wines seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I know this little pocket of the world, what it’s best for. The soil resembles the soil in Bordeaux, and Bordeaux varietals grow best here. It gets really hot in the summertime. These varietals ripen very well. So, cabernet is king. Cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petite verdot, and for the white it’s semillon and sauvignon blanc. Chardonnay needs cooler weather; it wouldn’t grow well here. Riesling, pinot noir wouldn’t work well here.

We’ll go out as a group with the staff and pick together. Oh my gosh, it’s very hard work. The guys that do this are super skilled, they’re fast and it’s really hard work. They’re night-picking and delivering in the early morning. They’re getting paid by the box too. It’s exhausting. You’re hunched over a lot. The picking is not as romantic as it’s made out to be. But there’s excitement and there’s harvest and a lot going on. You’re just waiting to see what Mother Nature gives you.

What’s your favorite season?

I love the springtime. Everything just starts blooming. It’s beautiful. All the new growth comes out of the vines. The trees start blooming. Bluebirds are everywhere. It’s exciting. Nature just explodes in the springtime. I’m growing my vegetables and I start planting seeds. I love that time of year. Harvest is exciting, also. You’re at the receiving end of all that, you’re picking and taking, the hustle and bustle. It smells so good. There’s this yeast smell in the air, which I love, from the wineries fermenting grapes; the sugar turns into alcohol with a byproduct of yeast. It smells like home. I love that.

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California Dreaming

California Dreaming: Libby Maynard, Artist

Libby Maynard is an artist who has lived in the town of Eureka, in the far north of California, for half a century. She runs an art cooperative called Ink People.

Sasha Abramsky

Published

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Photo by Joanne Kim

Libby Maynard is an artist who has lived in the town of Eureka, in the far north of the state, for half a century. She runs an art cooperative called Ink People.


Tell me the story of you.

I live in Eureka, Humboldt County. I’ve been here since ’67. I spent my first 12 years in Washington, DC, where my father was in the State Department. We went to Thailand and Laos. I came back to the States for college, went to Wellesley, hated it, ran away, came West in ’67. As soon as I got here it felt like home. It had something to do with the trees. This sense of connection to the environment and to the earth – there were still these massive forests. And it did rain a lot. I love the rain. When I was a kid I used to walk home in the rain from school.

Now we’re at the edge of not having enough forests for genetic diversity. We don’t get as much rain now, certainly not as much fog. Part of it is climate change, and the ecology of the redwoods. They create a fog that nurtures them. We’ve cut down so many of the redwoods they can no longer affect the climate in this way. But it’s still a wonderful place. It’s a spiritual center, a different kind of tranquility and sense of calm and purpose.

What sort of art do you do?

I was a printmaker and etcher for 20 years. But I became too sensitive to the chemicals, so now I do mixed-media paintings and installations. Animals – I have a long moral piece on the cosmic wolf pack running through the universe. I can’t consistently produce for the last five or 10 years. I’m 68. The community is my palette. The work I do with the Ink People is so absorbing and rewarding. The Ink People is a community arts organization. We’re grassroots. We believe everybody’s an artist. We give peer support to artists, educate the community on the value of the arts and try to create jobs for artists. We work with the Hmong community, the Latino and Native American communities. I’m on the board of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, primarily based in Fresno, [with] offices in San Francisco and L.A. This state is this amazing tossed salad, all these different ingredients, all these different cultures that can express themselves in ways that build community and make it a wonderful place to live. Every language is a different worldview. That means an amazing diversity of viewpoints, of ways to see the world and solve challenges. Witness the fusion and blending and changing as cultures learn from each other and work together. It’s very exciting.

California has had its own bouts of xenophobia and extreme racism, ranging from massacres of Native Americans through to anti-Chinese riots and pogroms, and, more recently, propositions against undocumented immigrants. Yet in 2017 it looks somewhat different.

Somehow we’ve made it through to be a more inclusive society. I really believe it’s the wave of the future. It’s the right way to be.

California is the real future. To me, Trump is the last gasp of a regressive mentality. And of course, the last gasp holds longer and fights harder. I have this theory: I’m a boomer, we tried to change the system and it didn’t work. It got worse. Now we have this administration tearing apart everything we fought for. And it’s woken us up and it’s woken up the millennials. People are saying, “What is really important to me?” And they’re becoming active. We’re going to lead the country to the right place. I’d like to see people rediscover their own communities in new ways and see them with fresh eyes – so that they in their own communities create what they want. I’m still an optimist, even with all this stuff happening with Trump. There are far more people who really believe in the hope of this country than in Trump.

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