Friday, September 9, 2016

California dreaming didn't last long for Hispanics

City of Turlock (Courtesy photo)
California is such a vast place that you best can describe it in its extremes. It possesses a richly varied topography. Tall pines and cool temperatures in the north, a middle area with once-rich farm lands, and a picturesque desert and beckoning beaches in the south.

I did a short stint (about 11 months) at the Modesto Bee in Modesto, California, and after leaving the Bee, I was fortunate to be hired on again by a Gannett property, the Desert Sun in Palm Springs.

The same media company owned the Sacramento Bee, Modesto Bee and the Fresno Bee. I had hoped to work my way to the Sacramento paper to live in a city that had two large rivers and a central park with fragrant eucalyptus trees. The Tule fog season and the slow pace of the Modesto paper changed my mind: I wanted to leave.

My stint at the Bee's bureau in Turlock did not last long. I wrote stories and did a column for the paper. For some odd reason, I ended taking a photograph of kids with a cardboard toy train that ran on the front page. The paper issued cameras to all its reporters in outlying bureaus, so the multimedia roles came early then.

There were two things that surprised me during my time in the Modesto area, the presence of an active Ku Klux Klan organization (I interviewed its "cyclops" leader), and the oppression of the Hispanic farm workers. I guess the two go hand in hand. The KKK cyclops told me then that his organization was part of a "political movement."

Migrant farm workers who worked the harvests in "America's Breadbasket," as the Central Valley region was known, experienced great hardships in their housing and working conditions. I recalled that several of them lived with their families in automobiles along the farm country's waterways.

A man from a South American country acted as a spokesman for them before Modesto local politicians. The workers' greatest need was for decent housing. It was either city or county-level elected officials that responded to such petitions by making fun of the Hispanics' accents. The migrant workers also included Asians, and they all seemed powerless.

I did some personal research into the region's history, something I've done wherever I went, and learned that several of the white American settlers and or pioneers also discriminated against Native Americans.

The settlers included the ancestors of contemporary financial institutions and media leaders. I shared my findings with some of the reporters who wanted to know how I found out about certain things in the backgrounds of the local media companies. Short answer - the public library!

When I met a banker in Modesto that had a Hispanic surname, I thought he was Mexican-American. He said he was Portuguese, as were many of the middle-class residents with Hispanic surnames; they did not speak Spanish and did not identify with the migrant workers.

I observed a big difference between the Mexican-American and Asian migrants. A particular group of Chinese farm workers decided to pool their earnings until they made enough to buy their own tract. They planted the kind of crops that grew in the area and sold them after the harvest. They became business owners.

The Chinese families also placed great importance on the education of their children. Through the Modesto Bee staff I heard that the parents, who didn't speak or understand English, would sit their children at the dinner table until their homework was finished.

Although the parents could not help with the homework, they made it clear to their children that getting an education was crucial to their future success. How I wished at the time that Hispanic migrant workers could learn to work together in this manner so they would not have to depend on the whims of growers and ranchers who wanted their labor but did not want them living in their neighborhoods.

I was unable to adapt to driving in the thick Tule fog conditions, and for this and other reasons opted to find another newsroom. The moment I stepped off the plane in Palm Springs for my job interview, I knew I had to be there. Like others, I harbored stereotypes about Palm Springs, which was portrayed in publications as a playground for the rich and famous. What I discovered was a stunning countryside with a natural oasis park and orchards of date palm trees that transported you to another part of the world.

Indio (California state tourism photo)

It got pretty hot in summer, about 116 degrees while I was there, but you could take the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway to a mountain station (at 8,516 feet elevation) with much cooler temperatures. The ride that can transform your environment so dramatically lasts only a few minutes.

There was a series of smaller communities next to Palm Springs, close to each other, that included Hot Springs, Palm Desert, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Indio and Coachella. From the farm fields in the Coachella Valley, one could catch a breath-taking view of the snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains in the distance.

I was an assistant city editor (called an "ace") assigned to the bureau in Indio; my official title was East Valley Editor. Once again, as in Modesto, I encountered Hispanic workers who were mostly all at the low end of the economic spectrum. Many of them worked in the resort hotels, restaurants and golf courses. Two Native American reservations, some Indians (from India) and a small black community made up most of the rest of the non-Anglo population.

The newsroom had one of the most creative and energetic staffs I had ever worked with. Joan Behrmann, formerly of USA Today, was the executive editor at the time. Tom Tait was the managing editor. It was the best news job I ever had in terms of work and place. The other aces and I worked long hours, shuttling between the bureaus and main newsroom, supervising reporters and writing stories ourselves. I recall working some 14 to 16-hour-long days, but I never felt it.

Among the stories I got to work on was a paternity lawsuit by a local woman against Prince Albert II Grimaldi of Monaco, which attracted lots of obnoxious paparazzi. The prince did not show up for the proceeding in Indio, but years later, after he became the ruling monarch of Monaco, Grimaldi apparently settled the claims of two mothers. "He keeps in touch with all of his children from previous relationships, and has come to legal agreements to pay their mothers," according to a 2015 article in the Daily Mail Prince of Monaco settles paternity claim.

What on earth is a royal doing in the Palm Springs area? Well, Indio is a traditional favorite of royal polo players. Former President Gerald Ford was one of the paper's readers, along with other famous people. "Glitz" was one of the paper's news beats, and for this reasons, the photographers had to keep a tuxedo handy in case they were assigned to cover one of the many posh events that came up.

Other stories I worked on included one about a local prosecutor trading deals for golf privileges (really), and an in-depth article on how beer companies targeted Hispanics during popular cultural events like Cinco de Mayo.

Apparently, I was told later, that one of the advertising executives felt the story was too controversial to published. During my stay at the Desert Sun, a local radio talk show host insulted Chinese listeners who objected to the use of the term "chinaman" when referring to Asians in the community. The talk show host did not accept that this was an offensive term, and kept repeating it on purpose ....

I found it revealing that the editors at the Desert Sun could not decide whether to endorse the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). They were honest in acknowledging that they didn't know much about it, much less whether it was going to be good or bad. Ultimately, the free trade accord involving the United States, Mexico and Canada was approved and went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994.

Once more, as in Modesto, it was a non-Mexican Hispanic, a lawyer of Peruvian background, who acted as a spokesman for the Hispanics who were complaining about discrimination. I may have been the only Hispanic on staff at the Desert Sun at the time, and this lawyer and other Hispanic community leaders expressed disappointment when I told them I was leaving Palm Springs.

I wondered out loud why California was not a better place for Hispanics and other minorities in general. After all, wasn't the state at the vanguard of the Chicano Movement? In summary, the responses I received were that not much had changed in everyday life for minorities in the Golden State. In my short time, I was proud of having had a hand in getting the Desert Sun to hire another minority journalist, a young Asian reporter from a Central Valley newspaper.

Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers Union who inspired the Delano grape boycott, died while I was at the Palm Springs paper. I spoke Spanish so I was asked to interview farm workers in Coachella for their reactions. By the time I arrived in the fields, the news had reached us that Chavez, who had received death threats and was nearly poisoned once, died of natural causes on April 23, 1993.

Several farm workers gathered at a center to talk to reporters. Something came over me when I approached the first two farm workers: I started to cry before I could finish asking my question about Cesar Chavez. So much for being a professional journalist. [A grandson of Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union and Chavez's right hand, married one of my nieces in California.]

Palm Springs had great restaurants, beautiful scenery, and not all its visitors were royals or movie stars. A group of Hell's Angels bikers once sat two tables from me at an outside cafe. They wanted someone else's table and asked for it. Once I realized who the bikers were, I asked them if they wouldn't mind being interviewed by a reporter. They did. Their smiles turned quickly to scowls and they became hostile. I finished my meal and returned to the newsroom.

After I returned to El Paso, Texas, I learned that the dream newsroom that was the Desert Sun at the time fell apart. The paper got a new publisher and editor, and just about everyone who was there was forced out or quit. The upheaval led to the later removal of one of the new top editors. To use a cliche, nothing lasts forever; the talented staff that I had worked alongside scattered.

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