It goes without saying that California has left a giant footprint on American culture. While the south has the blues, jazz, and rock and roll and New York has bebop, Broadway, and hip hop, California has Silicon Valley and of course Hollywood. But it is even more than that: It is the living embodiment of what we call the American Dream. The place where everyone comes to to escape their pasts, to reinvent themselves into better, more glamorous personas, to seek wealth and fame. This has been so whether it were with the Okies escaping the Dust Bowl during the 1930s; African Americans seeking wartime jobs and an escape from the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration; or the children and grandchildren of European Jews sloughing off East coast ghettoes and unpronounceable names to seek fame and power in the orange groves of Hollywood. The story is the same. California, as it exists in the greater American imagination, is a state in which one can make one’s dreams come true.
That has been good for California, but it has also been bad. For every person who has migrated to these borders and was able to eke out a life through sheer ingenuity, no matter how grand or small, there are many others whose dreams burst as all deferred dreams eventually do, often with the dreamers turning tail and returning to their places of origin, disappearing into the countless, unknown millions––or exploding. The riots in 1965 Watts and in 1992 South Central were testaments to that. This has been the story of California, a state that can either make or break you (or do both). Beneath the images of sun-soaked beaches and palm trees; the glamor and cool of Los Angeles; the fog-shrouded, hilly streets of San Francisco; the romanticism, mystery, and lore, there exists another California, a state rich of geographic diversity and of broken dreams. Look at the literature, films, TV shows, and songs produced and written about this state and you will find it there, a warning to the weak of heart.
It began, this warning, long before the state was discovered––1510 approximately. That was when Garcí Rodriguez Ordoñez de Montalvo’s novel Las Sergas de Esplandian was published. Like a lot of romantic tales, the novel explored the heroic exploits of Spanish adventurer Esplandian. One of those exploits occurs on an island called California, “very close to the side of Terrestrial Paradise…” that is populated with Amazonian black women who capture and domesticate young griffins by feeding them on men. Their queen is named Calafia. Known for her legendary beauty, Calafia is trained in the arts of warfare and has an armada of boats through which she plans to plunder the rest of the world. What draws Esplandian to California is its legendary gold. And right there you see the beginnings of mythic California, its epic allure, and its danger––after all, there’s those griffins to get past. It’s also telling that these original California girls weren’t the stereotypical beach blonde bunnies the Beach Boys sung about.
Centuries later, the real California would draw just such adventurers after the discovery of gold in the Sacramento valley. People from around the world braved the treacherous routes across the Atlantic, the Pacific, and around the Cape Horn to reach the state. California’s rich diversity began during the Gold Rush, though the state’s penchant for multiculturalism began long before that with the Native Indian populations (Maidu, Chumash, Pauite, Miwok, Wintu, Ohlone, and others), early Spanish explorers and missionaries, and Mexican, Russian, and early American settlers. But the Gold Rush saw an influx of Asian, South American, European immigrants, as well as Americans who sought out the promise of new wealth.
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Louise Clapp (Dame Shirley), an easterner who traveled with her husband to California to capitalize on the discovery, wrote extensively about her experiences to her sister back in New Jersey. The letters were eventually published in a San Francisco journal under the title The Shirley Letters. Clappe’s detailed letters offer not only a portrait of the motley crew of people who shaped California’s history, but also the struggles of a frontier community coming into being. But it is her portraits of individuals crushed by the realities of mining life that create the singular impression of a state indifferent to the very dreams that drew individuals to it. In one sequence she tells the story of a miner whose leg was crushed by a stone that rolled down a hill. F., as he is called, refuses to have his leg amputated and is eventually stricken with Typhoid Fever. “His sufferings,” Clappe goes on to write, “have been of the most intense description. Through all the blossoming spring, and a summer as golden as its own golden self, of our beautiful California, he has languished away existence in a miserable cabin, his only nurses men––some of them, it is true, kind and good––others neglectful and careless.” The “misery” alongside the beauty is a theme that finds its way through much of the literature and films about the state. They seem inexplicably linked, as though a reminder that there is a bloody price to be paid in order to exist in this “Terrestrial Paradise.”
Across disparate works of fiction, films and music, the theme exhausts itself. A pattern arises. One perfect example of this is in the classic R&B hit by Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Released in 1973, the song examines the plaintive dreams of those who dust themselves off from their old hometowns to come to California, only to discover that the California of their dreams is only an illusion. Listen to Gladys sing “Midnight Train” and you’ll realize that she is not simply giving up her life in Los Angeles to be with her man, but that she shares his heartache and disappointment. She sings “I’ll be with him” with such passion that you know she is the one who is more than happy to pick up her bags and go. She has known all along that “dreams don’t always come true,” a lesson he learns too late. But the world they are leaving is hers, not his, so she knows, as most native Californians know, that the reality for African Americans in this state has always been a mixed bag.
That mixed bag repeats itself again and again. It’s there in the soul-crushing grind of Charles Burnett’s elegiac 1979 film Killer of Sheep. Here, the well-worn images of palm trees, mansions and swimming pools are replaced by wide, cement-cracked boulevards, alleyways and rock quarries where children play, and the slaughterhouse where the eponymous sheep are hung by hooks and slit open, the blood spilling onto the killing floor. These haunting images form the broken, unrealized dreams of Stan (played by Henry G. Sanders), who longs to escape the stultifying, sleep-defying circumstances of his marginalized life. Unable to relate to his children and his wife, who long for his affection as a salve against the indifferences of the city, Stan chases after get-rich-quick schemes that fall just short of realization. Even pleasurable pursuits tend to be elusive. In one scene, Stan and his family go on a picnic outside of the city. Along the way, the car their friend borrows breaks down, forcing them to return home. In California, dreams are just within reach, so close you can touch them, but they fade like mirages in the desert as soon as you do.
This nearness of dreams and illusions is evident in The Barbarian Nurseries by Héctor Tobar. In The Barbarian Nurseries, the lives of undocumented workers rub against the wealthy elite. They perform the duties of keeping Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs well tended, but as Tobar notes, the class divide between the two can often be illusory as well. Scott and Maureen Torres-Thompson, victims of the recession who are no longer able to support their expensive lifestyle, find their marriage dissolving into bitter recriminations and resentments. When one argument turns violent, Maureen and Scott each leave, believing the other has stayed behind to care for their two sons. Their housekeeper Araceli Ramirez is forced to take drastic measures to help the boys when she drags them across the greater Los Angeles area to reunite them with their estranged grandfather. Everyone, including all of Los Angeles, is affected by her actions when the police and the media are brought in, but none moreso than Araceli who, by novel’s end, is seen driving away from the state in search of the life she came to California to find. Both Araceli and Scott are dreamers, but only Araceli is wise enough to know the limitations of those dreams for the marginalized.
The same message can be found in Manuel Muñoz’ novel What You See in the Dark, but here the illusions of Hollywood intersect with the harsh realities of life in the hinterlands, in this case San Bernardino, when a director (Alfred Hitchcock) and his leading lady (Janet Leigh) arrive in town to shoot principal photography for their latest film (Psycho). But San Bernardino, like many of Hitchcock’s films, is the setting for Muñoz’ own tale of passion, murder, and the lost dreams of both the native born and migrants as they brace for a new highway that will cut through town. As with the Torres-Thompsons, even those who succeed often face uncertainty because successes can be as fleeting as they can be elusive. Muñoz’ leading lady is painfully aware of the fact that the film she is making will herald a new style of filmmaking that will overthrow the already dying studio system, pushing actresses such as herself, taught and trained within that system, to the margins––“From overhead [during shower sequence], it was heartbreakingly easy to see how she had nowhere to go, trapped as she was on all sides.” Whether in San Francisco, South Central L.A., Hollywood or in the hinterlands, the story remains the same––the dream, the bust, the bitter reality.
It’s there in the fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Chester Himes, Walter Mosley, Nathanael West, Joan Didion or Kate Braverman; in the incendiary rhymes of NWA and Tupac Shakur laying down in the harshest terms the imploded dreams of a post-Civil Rights era; in the punk irony of the Dead Kennedy’s “California Uber Alles” or Fishbone’s “? (Modern Industry)”; in Johnette Napolitano’s yowl in Concrete Blonde’s 1980s alt-rock hit “Still in Hollywood” or Don Henley’s weary resignation in the Eagles’ “Hotel California”; in the crush of broken hopes and dreams in The Grapes of Wrath, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Chan is Missing, Boys ‘N the Hood, Fruitvale Station; and in the veneer that’s torn away to reveal the corruption and deceit––Sunset Boulevard, Vertigo, Chinatown, Shampoo, The Player, L.A. Confidential. There is the vision, the oasis surrounded by desert, promising a quench for dry throats, and then the gritty taste of sand. All of these works in one way or another serve as a warning about the state. Things aren’t as they seem here, they all say. So don’t say we didn’t warn you!
Of course you cannot limit a state as large as California to its main urban attractions. It is too rich, too geographically diverse to allow for such simplistic evaluations. Native Californians live, work, love, and yes, even succeed here, and all in that laid-back, casual style we’re known for. And yet, the myth persists. It’s there for all to see, the dreams, the ambivalence, the cautionary tales.
Perhaps the myth is in no small part due to the fact that the state itself projects it onto the rest of the world. Tourist ads do not contradict this image. One ad, which runs frequently, features attractive people located in various spots around California––from the farm country of the Inland Empire to the vineyards of Napa Valley––all bestowing the state’s natural virtues; and of course there are the requisite shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, redwoods, beaches, Disneyland, and Hollywood! Who wouldn’t be attracted to that? What you don’t see, of course, are the inner cities, the trailer parks, the farm lands on which Mexican migrants toil, the overcrowded prisons, the homelessness, the overworked, the underpaid, and of course all those foreclosed homes. The problems of California are in the end the problems of America.
Still you can’t fault the tourist industry for wanting to draw more revenue into the state. California always tries to put its best face forward. To the rest of the country, California is full of kooks, San Francisco and Hollywood liberals, nuts and screws. But the dream persists.
I was born and raised in California. During the scope of my life here, the state of my birth was rocked by serial killings, kidnappings and assassinations; religious cults; the rise of conservatism; AIDs, crack cocaine; gang violence, sex scandals; earthquakes, fires, and mudslides; Rodney King, riots, O.J., the dot.com bust, Enron and rolling blackouts, budget cuts, the killing of Oscar Grant, and the Governator. And throughout it all, Californians continue to persist. It is what we do.
Though the number of people coming to California has slowed down (and the number of people leaving has risen), those adventurers of self-invention who have always given this state its color and eccentricity will continue to make their way here. And literature and pop culture will continue to tell their dreams and their failures.
- California Dreaming (thangnguyen555.wordpress.com)