Polished Paragraphs – Southern California Communities


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Since Southern California’s early growth is multi-faceted, historians have tried to analyze it in different ways. One of the main historical debates deals with the development related to the citrus industry. What was the most important factor for the region’s expansion and why? How much did immigration play a role in region’s growth? Some scholars, like Edward Bachus, argue for a traditional history of institutions impacting growth, which include irrigation, the railroad, and the Fruit Exchange. Similarly, William Deverell in“The Southern Pacific Railroad Survives the Pullman Strike of 1894” uses a top-down approach to discuss the power of California’s railroads in the midst of labor strikes (Deverell 183, 192). Other scholars argue instead that it was the labor force, such as Mexican immigrants, which drove the citrus industry’s growth. Stacey Smith, in Freedom’s Frontier, offers a broader analysis on the state’s labor and slavery in the 1800s by connecting them to similar national developments. National trends are also explained from the immigrants’ perspective in James R. Barrett’s “Americanization from the Bottom Up.” Douglas Sackman seems to be in the middle of this debate because he emphasizes the citrus corporations’ marketing as a significant growth factor in Orange Empire, but he also recognizes the role of migrant workers. Samuel Truett, in Fugitive Landscapes, can build on Sackman’s work by viewing immigrants and native peoples as key contributing factors in the Southwest borderlands’ development (Truett 129).

Another related historical debate is one that considers the California Dream alongside efforts to establish successful Southern Californian communities. Was this dream attainable for everyone who lived in the state, why or why not? Should historians use cultural and social history, rather than economic history, for instance, to understand how communities developed and grew? Kevin Starr’s Americans and the California Dream discusses “the imaginative aspects of California’s journey to identity” by studying how settlers created and sought after their ideas of the dream (Starr vii). Many people pursued this dream but economic success came mostly to those who had power, money, or land. Starting with this idea of success, historians have studied Southern California’s expansion from the perspective of booming citrus corporations (Ronald Tobey and Charles Wetherell). Yet, this method marginalizes laborers who were not able to make substantial profit from the railroad, real estate, or citrus (Smith). Some of my sources including Slayton and Estes, Sackman, and Starr refer to key figures, often men, who shaped communities. However, scholars, such as Gilbert Gonzalez, Stephen O’Neil, and Lisbeth Haas, have also identified Mexicans, and women in particular, as important figures in their communities. In my early research, there appears to be a general historiographical turn towards more of a cultural and social history of California’s growth. Rather than viewing the history mainly through major institutions and themes like the railroad or the California Dream, recent scholars have reconstructed the story to shift the focus onto ordinary people and the spaces they inhabited.