Crises as Moments of Opportunity: Race, Power, and Two Centuries of Bad Development

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of ALANA Historians and ALANA Histories, LAWCHA, and SHGAPE

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 11:00 AM - 12:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: National Park Service; Race; Urban and Suburban


This paper session is about the ways in which social actors have used crises as a moment of opportunity to further institutionalize social and political hierarchies in US society. Participants will contribute to a growing body of literature on the role race and power have played in the construction of urban centers, national parks, and borderlands in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each paper analyzes how developers, mapmakers, and the US federal government have played off political turmoil in order to advance their own agendas as solutions to societal problems. Whether profiting off the exclusion of communities of color or seeking to profit from predatory inclusion, historians have witnessed two centuries of actors who aim to profit off the harmful circumstances caused by urban segregation, environmental racism, and financial divestment. Our case studies represent just a small sample of the ways in which harmful policies have been used to further two centuries of bad development. Genevieve Carpio, for example, analyzes the role of racial hierarchies in the development of Los Angeles’ car industry at its urban core. Celeste Menchaca examines the ways in which the construction of waterways as a mitigation technology to obstruct migration from Mexico into the United States points to the harmful ecological degradation border security has caused. Priscilla Leiva analyzes the role of one Los Angeles business developer named Benjamin Weingart who is celebrated as a financial heroine but who profited from the stealing of Tongva lands and racially exclusionary housing policies. Stevie Ruiz addresses the role of Chinese domestic workers in the creation of white environmental spaces that became cutoff from greater access to the larger US polity. If the COVID-19 crisis has taught historians anything, history can be repeated at least twice. Our paper session bears witness to the history of institutional racism that has profited off the misery of the most vulnerable in US society. Using crises as a moment to build financial empires, solicit financial support from the US federal government, and cast blame upon immigrants continues to be the same generic response recycled for two centuries. As historians, we see our individual papers as helping to open space to support conversations that support alternative approaches to social transformation that no longer help to support institutions but rather support the most marginalized who are very often beholden to those who hold institutional power.

Papers Presented

Cruising Figueroa: Race, Cars, and the Battle for Los Angeles’ Identity

The epicenter of automobile consumption in Los Angeles during the early 20th century was the dealer showroom. A reproduction of preexisting racial hierarchies, showrooms physically and socially separated White buyers from people of color, the affluent from the working-class, and consumption from production. That is, showrooms were an initial point of gatekeeping from which people of color were denied automotive movement through Los Angeles. But, Felix Chevrolet was unique. The dealership first opened its doors in 1922 in Downtown Los Angeles’ auto row. It was owned by a Mexican American veteran, welcomed Black and Brown Angelenos in its showroom, and hired salesmen of color, primarily Latinos. The owner, Winslow Felix, is believed to have been the first Latino to own a dealership in Greater Los Angeles. Felix adopted a “broad visioned policy of fairness” in hiring and sales within his dealership. This breaching of the social contract between whiteness and car ownership has earned the company long-running loyalty among Black and Latino car enthusiasts. This paper shares research into the history of Felix Chevrolet, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Contributing to growing literature at the intersection of urban history and relational racial formation, this history indicates that alongside extensive racial restrictions in LA’s autopia were racially progressive commitments that fostered diverse motorists and automotive engagement. In doing so, it disrupts common misperceptions of car culture as benign by demonstrating that automobility drove how race and space were made in Los Angeles over the course of the twentieth century.

Presented By
Genevieve Carpio, UCLA

Reclaiming a River: Water, Race, and Nation at the U.S.-Mexico Border

In total, the U.S.-Mexico Border runs just under 2,000 miles in length. Roughly two-thirds, or 1,255 miles of that border, is a river. Water is a crucial element in nation-making, not just because it forms the international boundary line, but also because it serves as a limited resource for the plants, animals, and humans that inhabit the region. In our current climate crisis, we face a gradually expanding dry riverbed which leaves fragile ecosystems and farms vulnerable to a dwindling water supply. While the climate change we face is recent, the Rio Grande region has experienced a longer history of water crisis management. This paper explores how U.S. development north of the Rio Grande led to a variety of crises for indigenous residents, water engineers, and small farmers at the turn of the twentieth century. The Rio Grande was the site of the first federal stream gaging station established in 1889 on the recommendation of John Wesley Powell, the preeminent figure of 19th century western river exploration. Although located roughly 350 miles north of El Paso, Texas, development near the headwaters of the river had an environmental and human impact downstream. The corporate extraction of waters from the Rio Grande for mining and agricultural purposes led to major problems on both sides of the border. Harnessing water for irrigation disrupted the flow of the international border and led to the displacement of local farmers and flooded indigenous lands for the purposes of dam and reservoir construction. With a focus on technology, this paper will explore the impact of irrigation infrastructure on local populations.

Presented By
Celeste R. Menchaca, University of Southern California

From Orphan to Developer: Benjamin Weingart, Race and the Origins of Wealth in Los Angeles

Hailing from Georgia, Benjamin Weingart arrived to a developing Los Angeles in 1906 where he soon found work as a delivery driver. He went on to manage the Winchester Hotel and then eventually owned it. This capital enabled him to acquire properties throughout Los Angeles including many single-room occupancy buildings and shopping centers. In 1950, he joined forces with Mark Taper and Louis Boyer to develop Lakewood, California, the nation’s largest postwar planned community. A year later, he founded the Weingart Foundation which continues to support nonprofit organizations to this day and, in 2016, made a commitment to racial and social justice. This paper seeks to place Ben Weingart’s accumulation of wealth over the first half of the twentieth century in the context of a longer history of racial exclusion and constellation of development. From indigenous dispossession to racist housing policy, Weingart purchased and developed properties within an effectively organized racial system that outlived some of the policies that produced them. This paper examines why this is the case. In doing so, it seeks to contribute to ongoing discussions about the origins of wealth and the possibilities for reparative action.

Presented By
Priscilla Leiva, Loyola Marymount University

The Role of Migrant Labor in the Creation of White Environmental Spaces in California

This paper addresses the role of migrant labor in the development of the National Park Service in California. Asian migrants were left with a limited set of employment opportunities due to racial discrimination. Driven out of gold rush mining because of the Foreign Miners’ Tax of 1850, Chinese workers were drawn to work in outdoor industries like park hotels as launderers, cooks, and landscapers. Recorded evidence documents the USGS employed dozens of Chinese workers as early as 1888. Chinese laborers helped to curate a host of dinners for mapmakers and land surveyors. Little is known about the lives of Chinese migrants and their role as domestic laborers in the public lands movement still remains a blindspot in the historiography about the development of the park service. Drawing upon John Muir’s family estate papers, National Park Service records at Yosemite, and letters written by leading US conservationists like Stephen Mather and William Kent, this paper analyzes the ways in which migrant labor was used to cultivate white environmental spaces. I argue that calls to transition conservation management into the hands of the US federal government came at a cost during the Progressive Era of the 1920s. First, it meant the upholding forced removal and stripping of land rights from California’s American Indian populations that carried over since the 1850s, especially those lands belonging to the Ahwaneechee peoples of the Yosemite Valley. Second, it came at the expense of a cheap exploitable labor pool of Chinese workers who took on the brunt of blame for environmental problems by US conservationists in the early 1900s. Amid growing crisis over race, immigration, and the environment in the nation, I argue that the origins of the mainstream environmental movement need to turn to migrants for solutions rather than blame environmental problems on migrant communities, especially since immigrants were such a critical part in the creation of the public lands movement.

Presented By
Stevie Ruiz, CSUN

Session Participants

Chair: Alina R. Mendez, American Ethnic Studies, University of Washington, Seattle
Alina R. Méndez is an Assistant Professor in the American Ethnic Studies department at the University of Washington, Seattle. She specializes in Mexican American history with a focus on migration, labor, and the US-Mexico borderlands. Dr. Méndez received her PhD from the University of California, San Diego and a BA in Latin American History from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently revising her award-winning dissertation into a book manuscript titled Border Braceros: Migration, Farm Labor, and Social Reproduction in the Imperial Valley-Mexicali Borderlands, 1942-1968.

Presenter: Genevieve Carpio, UCLA
Dr. Genevieve Carpio is Associate Professor of Chicana/o and Central American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she works on questions related to relational racial formation, the urban humanities, and 20th century U.S. history. She holds a PhD in American Studies and Ethnicity, a Masters in Urban Planning, and a graduate certificate in Historic Preservation. She has published in American Quarterly, Journal of American History, Journal of Urban Affairs, and Information, Communication and Society, among other venues. Carpio is author of Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (University of California Press, 2019), which received the Owen’s book award from the Western Historical Association and honorable mention from the National Association of Chicano and Chicana Studies.

Commentator: Nancy Kwak, UC San Diego
Nancy Kwak is an Associate Professor of History and an affiliated faculty of the Urban Studies and Planning Department at UC San Diego. She is an urban historian and researches the history of cities, planning/architecture/design, and housing policy. She is the author of A World of Homeowners: American Power and the Politics of Housing Aid (University of Chicago Press) and the co-editor with Andrew Sandoval-Strausz of Making Cities Global: The Transnational Turn in Urban History (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Presenter: Priscilla Leiva, Loyola Marymount University
Priscilla Leiva is an Assistant Professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies at Loyola Marymount University. She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled Fighting for the City: Race and Civic Identity in Postwar Los Angeles that examines how stadiums have produced and sustained racial meanings that shape ideas about the city and belonging. She is also the lead researcher for Chavez Ravine: An Unfinished Story, an oral history and archival collaboration that documents a long history of displacement and its aftermath in Los Angeles. Her research has been funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, American Council of Learned Societies, Social Science Research Council Mellon Mays Foundation, Smithsonian Institution, and University of Texas at Austin Center for Mexican American Studies. Her public humanities work includes collaborations with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, Imagining America, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Boyle Heights Museum.

Presenter: Celeste R. Menchaca, University of Southern California
Dr. Celeste R. Menchaca is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California where she specializes in nineteenth century U.S-Mexico borderlands history. She has published in Pacific Historical Review, Journal of American Ethnic History, and California History. Her article “Staging Crossings: Policing Intimacy and Performing Respectability at the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1907-1917,” won the Jensen Miller Award from the Western Historical Association. Her current manuscript, Borderland Sightlines: Vision, Science, and the Production of a Nineteenth-Century U.S.-Mexico Border, traces how state officials and varied researchers drew on scientific disciplines and vision—both corporeal and metaphorical—to manufacture the U.S.-Mexico border.

Presenter: Stevie Ruiz, CSUN
Dr. Stevie Ruiz is an associate professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Northridge. His current book manuscript, “Stewards of the Land: Race, Space, and Environmental Justice,” (under contract with University of North Carolina Press), is a study about the racial origins of the Environmental Justice Movement prior to the 1960s in the U.S. Southwest. His publications have appeared in Kalfou: A Journal of Comparative and Relational Ethnic Studies, Latino Studies, Chicana/Latina Studies: The Journal of Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social, and Ethnic Studies Review.