Dr. Emily Abel

Although notorious for its polluted air today, Los Angeles once billed itself as a health resort, especially for people with “lung troubles.” Soon after the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in 1876, publicists launched a massive crusade to portray the metropolis as the promised land and circulated countless stories of miraculous cures. Because the inflated booster rhetoric promised more than could possibly be delivered, the city soon contained an unusually large proportion of sick and dying people. Tuberculosis (or consumption, as it often was called) was especially prevalent. After Robert Koch’s discovery of the tubercle bacillus, Americans began to understand that TB was communicable.

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Image of the St. Vincent Sanatorium in Los Angeles, 1880s. From the collections at The Huntington Library.

Thus, after wooing health seekers from the east, the metropolis adopted a policy of exclusion. The first targeted group included white, single men labeled “tramps” during the 1890s and early 1900s. When a bill to establish a statewide quarantine failed, state authorities sponsored a federal bill to discourage low-income people with tuberculosis from leaving the East and dispatched posters to train stations throughout the country, warning that California provided no free care to residents of other states. Health officials then turned their attention to Mexicans, who arrived in large numbers in the 1920s. Nativists sought not just to restrict their entry but also to expel them in the 1930s. State and local health officials were major players in the deportation and repatriation drives, which reduced the size of the Mexican community in Los Angeles by a third. Health officials then turned their attention to Filipinos, again urging those with tuberculosis to depart and providing transportation home. A far more extensive campaign focused on the thousands of people who poured into Los Angeles from other parts of the nation in the Great Depression. Health authorities participated enthusiastically in efforts to seal the city’s borders.

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Image of the Barlow Sanatorium in Elysian Park in 1915. The hospital was founded in 1902 to treat tuberculosis patients in Los Angeles. From the collections at USC Libraries.

The first attempt to establish a public sanatorium in Los Angeles met defeat largely as a result of fears that it would attract impoverished health seekers. By the early twentieth century, the need could no longer be denied. The major institution serving poor people was the county hospital, which was greatly overcrowded. Soon after the passage of a state law providing a $3-a-week subsidy to counties for every indigent tuberculosis patient in an approved facility, the county began construction of Olive View Sanatorium in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley.

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Image of Olive View Sanitarium, 1920s.  From the collections at The Huntington Library.

The first ninety-five patients arrived in 1920. One wrote to a public health official “to tell of the wonderful treatment we are receiving here…we all realize that while the Doctor is a martinet, he has the best interest of every patient at heart.” The facility soon expanded. By 1931, it accommodated 917 patients. Located far from the city, Olive View was able to segregate patients from the rest of the population. But because street car service did not extend that far, families had difficulty visiting.

Emily Abel is Professor Emerita, UCLA-Fielding School of Public Health. She is the author of two books on tuberculosis and Southern California: Tuberculosis and the Politics of Exclusion: A History of Public Health and Migration to Los Angeles (Rutgers University Press, 2007) and Suffering in the Land of Sunshine: A Los Angeles Illness Narrative (Rutgers University Press, 2006).

Angelica Stoddard

On Thursday, May 29th, 1958, Tracy Vercher escaped Camarillo State Hospital. It would not have been difficult. Vercher was in much better condition than the hospital. He was a young man, just twenty-three, and a veteran of the Korean War. Though he suffered from epilepsy, the ailment that brought him to the hospital was not physically incapacitating.

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Original buildings of Camarillo State Hospital, 1936. Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

For its part, Camarillo State Hospital had fallen into a sorry state by this point in its history. It had been overcrowded and understaffed for so long that there were only four security guards on duty. These four served a patient population of nearly 7,000 people. There were 2,000 workers on site as well, unevenly covering a 24-hour shift schedule. Combined with the patient population, Camarillo averaged 8,700 people coming and going each day.

Why so little security? The state refused to pay workers a fair wage, which made it impossible to recruit and maintain staff in all positions. Experienced staff members often sought jobs in VA hospitals or private facilities, which paid better. This was particularly true of the employees who found themselves at the bottom of the pay scale. As a state investigator put it in a 1958 report, “There is little need to point out that any normal town of approximately 9,000 people with a police body numbering 4, will find vice and crime running rampant.”

Camarillo State Hospital was, in effect, a town without a sheriff. In the absence of oversight, there was no one for patients to turn to if they had a problem. Vercher himself had only been there for a few months when he escaped. Escaping was his last resort. When he had tried to report on the neglect and occasional abuse he’d witnessed through official channels, he’d been threatened with punishment.

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Overcrowded Camarillo ward, 1958 California State report. Photo courtesy of the Camarillo State Hospital Collection, CSUCI, and the California State Archives.

Most of the hospital’s labor was done by “psychiatric technicians.” This was a fancy name for an unenviable job. Though they were paid even less than California’s state prison guards, they were expected to do the majority of patient care. This involved everything from helping patients with their basic needs for food and hygiene to providing medical treatments. It was demanding labor, physically and emotionally, requiring a lot of workers who were, in turn, provided almost no support. Shifts were so short staffed that individual staff members couldn’t take even a single day off to visit the beach, which was less than seven miles away, without complaints that the shift schedule would fall apart.

Adding to the trouble, the turnover rate was 71% for trainee psychiatric technicians, which meant that the hospital was always desperate for new people. They took anyone who was willing and still couldn’t find enough people. There weren’t enough employees for effective oversight. This emboldened the few who hurt or exploited patients and hobbled any worker who wanted to help. And the four security guards were not a deterrent. They couldn’t possibly keep an eye on everything going on across the hospital’s sprawling grounds.

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Camarillo State Hospital, 1947. U.S. Geological Survey.

Camarillo State Hospital wasn’t an outlier. Throughout state hospitals, patients and workers suffered from overcrowding and understaffing. Things had been bad since the Great Depression, but they had gotten exponentially worse with the population growth brought by World War II and the postwar boom. These issues began coming to light in the 1950s. In 1956, Attorney General Pat Brown sent two secret investigators into Camarillo to pose as staff. Earlier that year, Brown had learned about abuse at Modesto State Hospital due to a wrongful death case. When Brown heard rumors about Camarillo State Hospital soon after, he was prepared to act on them. His two secret investigators observed conditions and reported back. Their findings prompted him to send in official state officers in late 1957.

Their report corroborated the essentials of Vercher’s story. The types of neglect and abuse he recounted were recorded by investigators as well. He was no crank, nor was he confused about hospital conditions. He was driven by circumstances to make his escape. And the very decrepit nature of the hospital made it as easy as just getting up and walking away.

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Camarillo State Hospital, late 1950s. U.S. Geological Survey.

The environment would have acted as more of a barrier to escape than hospital security. Camarillo State Hospital was surrounded by a shelter of low hills spotted with thickets of cholla, prickly pear cactus, and coastal sagebrush. Beyond that, there was little but miles of farmland and chaparral, thriving in an arid climate just five inches of rain a year away from being a desert.

Most patients who took a notion to wander off were returned within a few hours. Savvy motorists were smart enough not to pick-up hitchhikers so close to a mental hospital and local residents knew the drill. To this day, locals tell stories about these short-term escapes. In one tale, a farmer found a patient out in his field, trying to pet a cantankerous bull.

Unlike patients who made short-term escapes, Vercher had much larger ambitions in mind than a stroll. By the 10:15 news that night, he was being interviewed live on the air at KTTV studios in Los Angeles. With the help of newsman Paul Coates, Vercher told the viewers that he had witnessed staff abusing patients at the hospital and he feared for his safety if he remained.

How he made the 70-mile trip remains an open question. Coates recounted that Vecher had gotten lifts from strangers as he made his way to the city. It would have likely taken an hour or more to get far enough away from the hospital to catch a ride though. And it would have taken longer still to hitchhike all the way to KTTV studios in Burbank.

The weather was warm that day, hitting a high of 83F in Camarillo. Vercher had started out dressed for the weather, in thin clothes and a worn straw hat to keep the sun off. By the time he arrived at KTTV studios, he was cold and looked a mess. Coates later wrote in his column for the Los Angeles Mirror that Vercher’s appearance at KTTV studios had come as a surprise. He had even had to push his way past security guards to catch Coates’ attention.

“All I want,’” Coates reported Vercher saying, “‘is a few minutes to tell my story.’”

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Paul Coates, Confidential File, 1955.

Camarillo was already news at the time of Vercher’s escape. Once the state’s inquiries at Modesto State Hospital came to light, Modesto had become an issue in the gubernatorial election. Public attention turned to Camarillo as soon as the first announcements of investigations were made. By the time Vercher escaped, the scandal received regular coverage in state and local newspapers. After Vercher’s interview with Coates, radio journalist and former war reporter Carroll Alcott took up the story, reporting on it regularly into 1959.

Coates was the perfect choice for that initial interview. He had won an Emmy for his 1953-1959 series Confidential File, which was at the forefront of syndicated TV journalism. The content informed the public while leaning into a tabloid sensibility. He covered topics like “Barbiturates” (1955), “Childhood Mental Illness” (1957), “Homosexuals and the Problem They Present” (1954), and the dangers of comic books (1955).

The Camarillo scandal was right in Coates’ wheelhouse, especially with the sympathetic veteran angle Vercher brought. We don’t know where Vercher got the idea to seek out Coates. Despite his reporting otherwise, Coates might have sent out feelers to find someone in the hospital who would make a good candidate for an interview. There’s even a chance that somehow Vercher got word to Coates. Or it could be that the story Coates told in the Mirror was true. Vercher might have really set out that hot day across the arid Camarillo landscape with no guarantees, just a sense of Coates from what he’d seen on the TV.

One thing is certain: Vercher wanted out. He was lobbying to be transferred from Camarillo State Hospital to the VA hospital in West Los Angeles. A lot of veterans tried to do this. After World War II, the VA instituted a policy which denied space in VA hospitals to mentally ill veterans if they couldn’t prove that their condition was “service connected.” In order to keep up standards of care, the VA also instituted long waiting lists even for patients who they had determined had the right to care. This was not insignificant in a state with the highest number of veterans in the nation at the time. The policy placed thousands of veterans in state hospitals every year.

The policy also allowed VA facilities to provide better care. Due to self-imposed patient limits they weren’t overcrowded like the state’s hospitals. They were adequately staffed too, with enough psychiatric nurses for the job. Veterans and their families knew this: they actively campaigned to get out of the state system as soon as possible. When he took the risk of his escape, Vercher would have known he had a better chance of getting decent care with the VA.

Vercher’s gamble paid off. Using the media attention, he was able to secure the transfer he wanted. Once in the Westwood VA psychiatric hospital, he got treatment he needed and secured his release. As of 1960, he was working full time and volunteering to help other veteran patients on his day off.

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Patient leaving the Sepulveda Veterans Hospital, 1965. UCLA/Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. 

Scandals like the one at Camarillo happened across the nation in this period. It was a pivotal moment in the switch to deinstitutionalization, a process which was intended to help as many patients as possible stay within their homes and communities. Fiscal conservatives and disability activists agreed that the decrepit hospital system was intolerable. However, political leaders did not invest in services to the extent that would have been necessary to provide adequate care.

Tracy Vercher escaped into a world pivoting toward our present. Now, a veteran in his situation in the greater L.A. region might very well end up homeless. Los Angeles has the second highest number of homeless people in the nation, and California has the largest number of homeless veterans. Many Californians who can’t afford mental health care end up in our overcrowded prison system or on the streets.

Vercher got the care he needed due to his ingenuity and good luck. But for every story like his, there were tens of thousands of people who couldn’t escape into a better life. The system failed the vast majority of patients in Vercher’s situation. They didn’t get the support they needed. That was reserved for those who could pay or rare people like Vercher. Historians deal in continuity and change. There is a tragic continuity between 1958 and 2020.

Born in Los Angeles, Angelica Stoddard grew up in the Coachella Valley and high desert. She returned to L.A. in 2009 to study history at UCLA, where she was a McNair Scholar and a recipient of the Federick R. Waingrow Undergraduate Research Fellowship. In December, 2019, she received her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California for her dissertation, Defining Worthiness: Veteran Mental Health in California, from Uneven Investment to Deinstitutionalization, 1941-1963, which she completed in part as a 2017-2018 recipient of the Haynes Lindley Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship. She is currently teaching part-time for the University of Southern California and Hebrew Union College.

Lauren Kelly

Although graveyards are places of death, they also hold so much life. On every trip to a new city, I make a point to visit historic graveyards. I’ve sat in grassy patches and touched the old stones in countless cemeteries—ones that are small by the roadside, crumbling in the middle of forests, or upright in the center of a city. I try to soak in the multi-faceted lives of each person who now lies beneath the ground, imagining the range of incredible and mundane moments these people experienced. I picture loved ones coming to pay their respects over the centuries and empathize with the emotion lingering among the gravestones. Walking between the rows, I read the epitaphs and try to reconstruct their stories– parents devastated by a child’s early death, widow and widowers remarried into a long and happy second marriage, or immigrants resting thousands of miles from their original homes.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, these experiences inspired me to focus on death for my undergraduate senior thesis. White women’s diaries from their journeys across the overland trails in the mid-nineteenth century United States formed my source base. From the 1840s-1860s, thousands of families traveled from homes in the Midwest to seize cheap, good quality farmland in Oregon and California. This transition was quite difficult for women especially, who were often resistant to leaving their extended family networks in the Eastern United States. To my surprise, narratives of death wound their way through these women’s journals again and again. Graves seemed to loom in women’s minds. Any death of a party member, or even someone from a nearby wagon train, was painstakingly recorded. This topic that had always dominated my interest seemed to be crucial for my historical actors as well.

I noticed that women approached death with curiously repetitive mannerisms. Most of them acknowledged the possibility that they might die themselves or lose their loved ones during migration. When someone fell mortally ill in their wagon train, women tried to gather at the dying person’s bedside and record their last words. After a death, the party members searched for the most serene burial spot they could find. Despite constant pressure to continue westward, women took the time to construct a makeshift shroud for burial out of spare cloth; meanwhile, men, if possible, built a coffin. They marked the grave using any materials available, often scratching a name, date, and epitaph into wood or rough stones. Other travelers on the trails also participated: strangers occasionally attended the small burial ceremonies or helped to beautify a grave with flowers. Women especially felt intense sympathy for each other’s pain in losing loved ones. Despite the short-lived nature of parties traveling west, I was surprised that women often felt deep emotion on behalf of strangers.

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After gathering these details about death on the overland trails, I wasn’t sure how to interpret my data. These death-centered patterns captivated me, but how were they significant? I read Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering. She describes how the Civil War shattered Americans’ expectations about the proper way to die. Before the Civil War, she argues, most Americans enacted the “Good Death,” a body of rituals that peacefully ushered the dead into heaven and comforted the living who were left behind. When unimaginable numbers of men perished in unprecedented ways in the war, Americans tried to implement parts of the Good Death, but eventually their relationship with death itself simply changed. If the Civil War represented an irrevocable breaking point for how Americans handled death, perhaps overland migration represented an earlier strain on settlers’ relationship with death.

Wanting to explore this idea further, I dove into literature about antebellum Americans’ death and burial rituals. The process of dying involved spiritual preparation and the creation of a deathbed “scene” with close family gathered around to witness last words. Burial involved multiple steps: women cleaned the body and sewed it into a piece of material called a shroud, men built a coffin and settled the corpse into it, and the community ushered the deceased into the ground with a procession to the grave and ceremonial burial. These processes were predicated on the home: the process of dying was intrinsically domestic and burial traditions affirmed the strength and durability of the community.

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This context about death and burial traditions cast my project in a new light. I saw that women desperately tried to hold onto rituals that brought comfort in the face of a foundational human anxiety, the line between life and death. Moreover, these processes recalled the homes they had left behind. Death and burial practices were grounded in settled domesticity, yet women tried to recreate them during perhaps the most transitory period of their lives. They worked with insufficient resources, an inconvenient demand to quickly continue westward, and a fluctuating, temporary group of settlers.

This contextual understanding led to my final argument: women also created new practices that crafted an imagined community between the transient settlers. Women applied components of death and burial practices to the graves themselves on the trails, and in so doing took on the role of community members in a new way. They contemplated the peacefulness of many graves, invoking the ideal of a peaceful deathbed. Women recorded the information on each grave marker as if cherishing the last words of each dead settler. Men and women both helped to maintain strangers’ graves, chasing away wild animals, reburying people if they had been dug up, and repairing occasional grave enclosures. Ensuring the sanctity of graves correlated with the community’s role in conducting the initial burial ceremony itself. Additionally, many women visited the graves of these strangers, sometimes leaving flowers and other mementos, but other times simply sitting with the grave. In settled life, visiting graves was solely a familial duty, so settler women stepped in for absent family members who had been forced to leave the grave behind to continue west. Finally, women tied together this mobile community through conscientious empathizing. They felt devastated imagining both the loneliness of the dead buried far from their homes and the pain of family members further along the trails. Through this mix of concrete actions and emotional work, community blossomed across the waves of migration.

Women constructed community for themselves even during this disruptive period that tore them from the domestic roots so critical to death and burial. With flexibility, resourcefulness, and generosity, they did their best to fulfill these traditions and went even further by treating trailside graves as if they contained members of their own family. This conclusion showcases the centrality of ritual in the face of tumultuous times and the resilience of women in adapting to unforeseen circumstances. While completing this work, I realized that following your curiosity immeasurably strengthens your research. By focusing on a topic that has always gripped me, I developed my first independent project that inspired me to follow history into graduate school.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Lauren Kelly is a history PhD student at USC. She is the recipient of a Provost Fellowship from the Graduate School. Before coming to USC, she earned her undergraduate degree in history at UC Berkeley. Her undergraduate work focused on women’s relationship with death on the overland trails in the mid-nineteenth-century United States. This research inspired her current interests in cultural histories of the American West, Indigenous studies, and borderlands history.

Julia Brown-Bernstein

My grandmother spent her golden years selling kitchen appliances and pajamas at a Long Island flea market. Frying pans and nightgowns never struck me as the most intuitive pairing. But my grandma’s stand was a hit. Every Saturday and Sunday, she, accompanied by her two sisters, peddled their wares to throngs of bargain hunters. They made enough money to pay off their mortgages and even finance a joint condominium in Delray Beach, Florida. It was an ingenious operation and it was fun. My grandma and great aunts knew their customers and fellow vendors. They discussed politics and shared notes about the latest Rogers and Hammerstein revival on Broadway. They forged a community.


Sarah Goldstein, Beverly Bernstein, and Eve Cohen seated in front of their flea market stand in Long Island, New York, ca. 1993.

As a child, I developed an appreciation for the socio-cultural function of the flea market. But it was not until I became a social studies teacher in the San Fernando Valley that I began to view the flea market as a site of historical inquiry. My eighth grade students constantly spoke about a said “San Fernando Swap Meet.” They mentioned spending their weekends there, either helping family members sell goods or perusing the aisles with their parents. Coming from New York City, I had never heard of a “swap meet” but I quickly grasped the concept.

Like a flea market, a swap meet is a large indoor or outdoor market. According to the California State Board of Equalization, a swap meet is characterized by two or more persons/businesses that offer merchandise for sale or exchange; prospective vendors are charged a fee for renting a space; and prospective buyers are charged a fee of admission. Vendors rent their tables on a daily, monthly, or yearly basis and sell a mélange of used and new products.


Aerial view of Kobey’s Swap Meet, San Diego, California.



Prospective buyers purchasing tickets to the San Fernando Swap Meet.

Throughout my career as a teacher, I often thought about the San Fernando Swap Meet. What role did it play in the lives of its vendors and in the broader San Fernando Valley community? Did its vendors develop a kinship with one another and their customers as my grandma and great aunts had back east? What regional and cultural markers distinguished the San Fernando Swap Meet from the Long Island Flea Market and others across the nation?

Years of pondering these questions helped steer me back to graduate school. I discovered that swap meets are an underexplored phenomenon in United States historiography. Scholars have typically referenced swap meets to make broader arguments about how immigrant groups remap the urban environment to reflect their respective cultures and meet their everyday needs. But swap meets have scarcely been examined as their own sociospatial phenomenon, wedged between the informal economy of “street vending” and the more formal arena of private business. With this in mind, I spent much of my first year of graduate school out in the field or deep in the archives researching Southern California’s swap meet industry. What follows is merely an introduction to what I hope will become a more expansive literature on one of the region’s most important cultural institutions.

The Southern California swap meet industry began in the late 1950s as a predominately Anglo space. As the sociologist Magdalena Barros Nock has noted, in the postwar era swap meets were populated by Anglo vendors who made an extra dollar by selling the flotsam and jetsam of their middle-class suburban homes. Consumers frequented the swap meets largely for leisure and curiosity as many do today with garage sales. Southern California swap meets garnered the reputation as an eclectic and eccentric “Wild West”—an image aided by the region’s climate and pervasive stereotypes of its transience, vagrancy, and “frontier” mentality.


The 1979 film, “Swap Meet,” directed by Brice Mack.

By the late 1960s, California’s immigrant population increased and swap meets became more ethnically and linguistically diverse. The Hart-Celler Act of 1965 and its eradication of national origin quotas accelerated the number of immigrant vendors in the region’s swap meets. Immigrants of Asian origin were among the first ethnic groups to sell at swap meets. They introduced new merchandise in the market to supplement produce and second-hand commodities.

The Hart-Celler Act, which also legislated the first numerical restriction on the Western Hemisphere, contributed to a growing presence of Latinx immigrants in the swap meet industry. As historian Mae Ngai has argued, the Hart-Celler Act not only increased undocumented immigration—creating a caste of “illegal aliens”—but its family reunification provision actually led to the settlement of a greater number of Latinx  immigrants than was stipulated under the law. California’s swap meet industry thus grew in relation to the number of immigrants who either arrived or settled permanently in the aftermath of the 1965 Immigration Act.  By the early 1970s, Latinx immigrants began trying their hand as vendors. They gradually displaced Asian vendors at the swap meets.


President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Hart Celler Act, 1965, New York City.

The growth of Central American vendors also reflected the geopolitics of the time. U.S. sponsored military coups in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s led to an outpouring of asylum seekers and migrants. Upon arriving in California, refugees found that outdoor markets, like swap meets, offered an informal refuge alongside the official sanctuary provided by churches and Central American-run organizations.

By the late 1970s, swap meets across Southern California boasted a majority Latinx vendor and consumer base. Swap meets came to resemble the tianguis, a massive outdoor market in Mexico whose origins stem back to the pre-Hispanic Tlatelolco market outside Tenochtitlan. In fact, vendors today assert that the swap meet is exactly the same as the tianguis only adapted to meet the needs of Latin American origin populations living in Southern California. The pre-Hispanic tianguis and its post-conquest iterations offer a valuable context in which to study the swap meet because not only were they the nexus of commercial exchange, but they also facilitated the interchange of cultural knowledge and experience. Mexica people swapped stories about agricultural and manufacturing techniques and they exposed each other to regional dialects and belief systems.

Collectivism was a defining feature of the pre-Hispanic tianguis. Merchants exchanged their products as a means of individual and communal subsistence. They traded with others to satisfy reciprocal needs. Yet it was the barter system that most distinguished the pre-Hispanic tianguis from its subsequent adaptations.  For the Mexica, bartering was a way of life that pervaded more than the economic realm. It represented a mutualism characteristic of many indigenous communities: the prosperity of the individual hinged on the welfare of the collective. As the nucleus of the Aztec Empire, it is no surprise that the Spanish Conquistadors staked their conquest on the siege of Tlatelolco.


“El Mercado de Tlatelolco” by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, Mexico.

By the time Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, Southern California’s swap meet industry increasingly reflected this long-stemming Mesoamerican tradition of collectivism. Individual swap meet entrepreneurs evolved into extended swap meet families. Vendors relied on their relatives to donate unwanted products and support the business through their own labor. They also developed relationships with vendors from Asia and other parts of Latin America, which allowed vendors to break into globalized markets. As one scholar has noted, it was not unusual to find Virgins of Guadalupe made in China or quinceañera dresses made in Taiwan.

The continued growth of Latinx swap meet vendors during the Reagan Administration resulted from changes in domestic immigration policy. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, the amnesty program, and the family reunification program, led to the permanent settlement of 2.3 million immigrants, the vast majority from Mexico. Heightened policing along the U.S.-Mexico border also caused formerly circular migrants to live permanently in the United States. A shift in the settlement patterns of migrant families helped solidify the swap meet industry as viable source of income. In agricultural areas, for example, swap meets became an alternative for immigrant women whose husbands worked seasonally in the agricultural sector, and who, due to gender or racial discrimination, struggled to secure steady employment.


President Ronald Reagan signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act, 1986, Washington D.C.

Most of all, vendors forged multiracial coalitions to advocate for the industry in local politics. Outdoor swap meets emerged predominantly in Los Angeles’ (sub)urban areas, which by Reagan’s first term, were already in the throes of rapid demographic change. In areas like the San Fernando Valley or the Inland Empire, outdoor swap meets were housed in former airports and racetracks—spaces that historically emblematized white suburban recreation. Yet the biggest supporter of the swap meet industry was the drive-in movie owner who looked to the burgeoning industry to fill an economic vacuum left by the drive-in’s waning popularity.


Starlite Swap Meet and Drive-In, El Monte, California.


Santa Fe Springs Drive-In Theater and Swap Meet, Santa Fe Springs, California.

As swap meets proliferated in the (sub)urban landscape, they became racially encoded entities that threatened the “character” of historically Anglo neighborhoods. Beginning in the early 1980s, suburban homeowners in cities like Santa Ana, Long Beach, and El Cajón organized neighborhood coalitions aimed at curbing, if not outright eradicating, outdoor swap meets from the area. For instance, in 1980 Long Beach homeowners organized the Veterans Stadium Citizens Committee to oppose a Recreation Department plan for city-sanctioned swap meets. In addition to parking and traffic complaints, one Long Beach resident insisted that, “it would be reasonable to expect home and car burglaries to rise in the residential area around the stadium…anytime you have an influx of outsiders—especially undesirables—into the area.”


Pat Sullivan and Sue Christensen, among 600 residents opposing a proposed swap meet at the Veterans Memorial Stadium, Long Beach, California, 1980.

At no moment was this local resistance more evident than in the four-year crusade to prohibit outdoor swap meets in Santa Ana between 1987 and 1991. By the summer of 1987, two outdoor swap meets operated in the city–one at the Rancho Santiago College and another at the Eddie West Field Stadium. At the time, the neighborhoods surrounding the two swap meets were largely Anglo while the swap meets were comprised predominantly of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Despite bringing the city $300,000 in annual revenue and providing scores of jobs, the swap meets came under attack by two neighborhood coalitions: one known as Santa Ana Neighbors for Excellence or SANE (which included representatives from 16 different city neighborhoods) and the other as the Washington Square Neighborhood Association. Opponents lobbied heavily to shut down the swap meets, citing a litany of concerns including reduced property values, increased traffic, parking problems, litter, and noise. At the heart of their campaign was the fear that swap meets negatively impacted the neighborhood and contributed to urban blight.


A map of the two swap meets in the city of  Santa, Ana, July 1987.

In response to these calls to close the swap meets, vendors and other supporters mobilized around a city council meeting slated for the evening of July 6th, 1987.  Wearing black armbands and toting small U.S. flags, swap meet vendors carried posters, one stating “Swap Meets Feed Our Children.” But swap meet supporters were outnumbered by their opponents who wore stickers that simply stated “Voter.” Over 600 people showed up on that Monday night, leading one reporter to remark that, “what initially appeared to be a minor zoning issue has emerged as a full-scale battle to shut the city’s two swap meets.”  The most explosive moment of the evening came around midnight when both Richard Norton, the two swap meets’ operator, and John Acosta, one of two Latino councilmembers, leveled allegations of racism against swap meet opponents, especially SANE. Santa Ana Mayor Dan Young assailed Acosta for his provocation. The council voted to permanently close the Stadium Swap Meet.  Four years later, it closed the Rancho College Swap Meet and passed an ordinance barring swap meets in the city of Santa Ana.

As historian Natalia Molina has argued, such racial scripts, like those ascribed to the vendors of the Eddie West Field and Rancho Santiago Swap Meets, could easily transfer to other communities with growing Latinx populations. By the 1990s, swap meets across the region were seen as markers of an imperiled community and signaled to white residents the presence of an imminent “Latino threat.” Mainstream media highlighted isolated incidents of robberies, counterfeit goods, noise, littering, and overall resistance to swap meets. In response, organizations like the California Swap Meet Association and the National Flea Market Association more forcefully advocated for the swap meet industry. Over the last two decades, their work has discredited many of the myths borne out of the Santa Ana controversy and improved the industry’s public image. But the swap meet has largely receded from view.  The mainstream media has given the swap meet industry little attention save for a handful of articles that still portray them as a lawless space.

Due both to its history and my own personal connections to the flea market, I spent the first four months of 2019 ensconced in the aisles of one of Los Angeles’ oldest and longest running swap meets in the city of San Fernando. On my first day of “field work” a former student, now 18, recognized me and quickly transformed into my key informant. I went back on six consecutive Saturdays to conduct interviews and visited every Tuesday and Thursday for five weeks to do participant observations. In total, I conducted and transcribed twelve interviews, which form the source base of my project.


San Fernando Swap Meet layout.

The San Fernando Swap Meet opened in the early 1970s, just a few blocks from the historic mission site. It was first owned by Pacific Theatres, a film company that used its drive-in lots as daytime swap meets. And I’d be remiss if I don’t point out the irony that the drive-in theater, which in many ways epitomized Anglo suburban recreation, was now serving a dual purpose as what the OC Weekly now calls “the working man’s mall.” The San Fernando Swap Meet now operates as a limited liability cooperation and is the largest in Los Angeles county, boasting over 1 million vendors and shoppers a year.

Three themes emerged from my research that illustrate the social and cultural functions of the San Fernando Swap Meet.

Cultural Hybridity. By this I mean the effort to maintain a balance among the practices, values, and customs of two or more cultures. Vendors construct a dual identity that fuses vestiges of their cultural and ethnic heritage—in this case, largely Mexican (though from different states), with an awareness of their position both within and outside the margins of nationality and citizenship. This theme was especially evident in my interview with Juan Pedredo, a twenty-year swap meet musician, who played Pedro Infante and Augstin Lara ballads on his guitar. As he noted, “The people like to remember the past, right? It reminds them of their uncle or their brother who played the guitar, no? It is our tradition.” Indeed, even the opening chords of the country’s most popular rancheras or corridos evoke a sense of nostalgia. Pedredo sees his musical performances as a countervailing force against a collective forgetting: “The people now they’re forgetting Mexico, with all the bad things there, with all the atrocities the government has committed, the politicians, business CEOs, capitalism, it’s all destroying humanity….here too, if you even move your hand they kill you.” Mr. Pedredo operates within what Alicia Schmidt Camacho has called a “migrant imaginary.” That is, he lives in the United States but resides in an existential borderlands—he wants his listeners to remember what Mexico once was as he laments what it has become. And he does so while struggling to make a livable wage from his post at the northwest corner of the San Fernando Swap Meet.

Swap meet vendors also see themselves as the torchbearers of the tianguis tradition in Southern California.  As Ricardo Zavala proclaims, “vendors and buyers come because this is our culture, our origin.” He elaborates, “the origins of the swap meet are in Mexico, there they call it ‘tianguis’ and it’s exactly the same as here.” While more work needs to be done to determine whether the tianguis and the swap meet are exactly “the same,” there is no doubt that vendors are aware that the swap meet is the descendant of the tianguis, and they its reinterpreters in Los Angeles. But just as the tianguis has adapted to tectonic forces shaping society today (globalization, neoliberalism, climate change, etc…), so too has the swap meet. While it possesses residual aspects of the pre-Hispanic tianguis—its collectivism especially, though not its bartering—it must negotiate between the world of unbridled capitalism while also maintaining the informality of a pre-industrial market.


San Fernando Swap Meet, San Fernando, California.

Collectivism. To be sure, the vendors work to support themselves and their families. But they also see their business contributing to a communal well-being. Individuals advocate for their needs and support their neighbors, making the swap meet what George Lipsitz has called a “Latinx spatial imaginary.” For vendors, the swap meet is a home away from home, where they develop a close relationship with each other and their customers.  As Ricardo Zavala stated, “with the neighbors, you make a kind of family environment because you see them every day. I mean, you basically live together, more sometimes even than the people in your house because here you arrive around five, six, or seven in the morning and stay until three, four, sometimes five in the afternoon and you’re here almost every day. It’s a family more than a business… because for example, your clients come and they tell you their stories, and sometimes you even become like a handkerchief for them to cry on. And yeah, it’s a big diverse family.”

This collectivism becomes especially evident when politics come into play, as Maria Garcés, a thirty-nine year vendor noted, “when Donald Trump came into office, the swap meet was deserted for two or three weeks. The people were scared, they wouldn’t come. We all suffered.” Note: “we” all suffered.  Or as David Angelo, reflected, “there were a couple times when we thought ICE was going to do a raid, we called all the vendors we could. At this swap meet and at the others we sell at.”


San Fernando Swap Meet, San Fernando, California.

Class Solidarity. A final theme I would like to highlight is that while swap meet vendors develop a collective spirit, where the success of the individual hinges on the success of the whole, the basis of this ethos stems from their class consciousness. For many vendors, the swap meet is a reminder of their status within the city’s segregated labor and housing market. Many vendors turned to the swap meet out of a need to survive when they could not get a job in their trained profession and because it was within blocks of their homes. Others attributed their swap meet career to discriminatory practices by employers. And yet others pursued swap meet vending as a means to attain economic mobility and independence in an environment that consigned them to the working class. This was not just the case for Mexican immigrants. Mr. Mirzoyan, an Armenian national who has sold Levi jeans at the San Fernando Swap Meet since 1992, ended up at the swap meet on a tip from a neighbor because he could not find a job in his field of mechanical engineering. “The people is taking care of each other,” he states.  Mr. Mirzoyan learned Spanish through his customers. Spanish, he asserts, is a requisite for swap meet vendors: “This is San Fernando, first stop of Latinos from Mexico. Most of them when they come here, they come to San Fernando swap meet. Seventy percent speak only Spanish.” While swap meet vending has become an alternative career for Mirzoyan, it is not easy work. “See this merchandise behind, it’s not easy to set up and pick up. It’s a lot of work. Everybody same. See how much merchandise they put there?” he says, pointing to his swap meet neighbor. Although they hail from different parts of the world, Mr. Mirzoyan identifies with his fellow vendors and feels a sense of solidarity with them. The job is taxing for everyone and they do it together, five times a week.


San Fernando Swap Meet, San Fernando, California.

Southern California’s swap meet industry has a deep and rich history. And this is just a starting point in the study of the region’s swap meets. Despite attempts to expunge swap meets from the cityscape, swap meets continue to serve the same function they have for over forty years as the tianguis market has for over five hundred. And despite fears that the swap meet’s days are numbered due to the rise of e-commerce conglomerates and the looming threat of gentrification, the swap meet has lasting power. Its unparalleled economic function and its deep cultural resonance place the odds of survival in its favor. And many vendors agree.

But I do think the swap meet industry raises important questions about how we understand the recent past. Swap meet vendors exhibited a working-class collectivism reminiscent of—perhaps not seen since—the Progressive or New Deal eras. And they rose to their height at the same time that the 1970s—famously dubbed the “Me Decade”—and the 1980s saw the country embrace an ethos of individualism. Plenty of volumes address how the “Reagan Revolution” played out in the realm of electoral politics. But fewer works explore how these political transformations impacted local communities, especially those with burgeoning immigrant populations. What’s more, suburban resistance to the swap meet industry can perhaps shed light on this current iteration of the restrictionist movement with individuals like President Donald Trump, Senate Speaker Mitch McConnell, and Stephen Miller at the helm. Future research can examine in more depth how alternative spaces like the San Fernando Swap Meet set a model for economic and cultural persistence when Washington and local neighbors reject it in both form and function.


Earlier this month, the ICW team and ICW graduate students took a trip out to Grand Teton National Park and the Murie Ranch/Teton Science Schools to explore ways to integrate western and public histories. We’ve collected reflections and photos on the experience to share with you.

BILL DEVERELL  For me, this was a dream come true.  Drawing together Jackson and Teton Science and the Murie Ranch and the doctoral community in western history at USC is something I have wanted to do for at least two years.  Being able to conspire with the ICW team, my mother-in-law, my friends at Teton Science Schools, Dornsife administrators, and Dornsife business office colleagues was fun and we all found ways to push the ball forward.  Getting off the plane – you unload right on the tarmac and THERE ARE THOSE MOUNTAINS – made it all so beautifully real.  The western historian graduate-student cohort was so fun to be with: smart, funny, curious, and so happy to be able to feel what this landscape and those who care for it mean.  I truly loved every minute of it.


JULIA BROWN-BERNSTEIN  Before our trip to the Grand Tetons, the only National Park I had ever visited in the United States was the Statue of Liberty National Park. As a native New Yorker, with an identity firmly rooted in that city’s subway and skyline, I have struggled to articulate my relationship to the American West. Fortunately, this is no longer a vexing problem in my life. After spending four days staring up at the craggy snow-peaked range of the Tetons, I have acquired a word to explain my connection to the West and a metaphor to buoy me through the vicissitudes of the PhD program: “viewshed.” Viewshed is a geographical area that is visible from a location. Growing up, I marveled at the skyscrapers from my viewshed on the sidewalk. It gave me a sense of wonderment and perspective. It challenged me to focus on what was within my purview and be comfortable with what lay outside. In the throes of my second year of graduate school, I return to this metaphor of the viewshed. Except this time, it is not Manhattan’s skyscrapers but rather the massive rock formations of the American West. And this time, I’m not standing on the sidewalk but on the patted earth with my ICW colleagues by my side and our visionary advisor, Bill, with the bear spray upfront.

TAHIREH HICKS  Getting to spend this past weekend in the Tetons with ICW was a truly transformative experience. Hearing from public historians while surrounded by the very nature their work helps to protect gave me new insight into the possibilities for history’s impact outside of academia. I arrived back in LA feeling energized and inspired to find new ways to connect my historical research to wider communities.  And perhaps most of all, I came away from the trip feeling more deeply connected to my colleagues and excited to collaborate with them in the future.

Julia Tahi

Tahireh Hicks and Julia Brown-Bernstein

JILLAINE COOK  The ICW trip to the Tetons provided a much-needed opportunity to reflect on my role as a historian and to build community with scholars I plan to continue collaborating with long after my time in grad school is over. Being away from the busyness of Los Angeles and the pressures of teaching responsibilities allowed me to think about my own work and develop ideas enhanced by conversations with my colleagues about their work. Lincoln Bramwell’s insights (Lincoln is Chief Historian for the U.S. Forest Service) about how historians should engage with the public both in academic and non-academic settings helped me clarify long-term goals for my scholarship and the impact I want to be able to have. Thinking about these ideas and holding these conversations on the Murie Ranch underscored the importance of being engaged in the world and the difference a few committed individuals can make.

LAURA DOMINGUEZ  Our extended weekend in the Tetons was the perfect mid-semester reminder of what it means to be a public scholar, a community member, and a mindful resident and student of the American West. Important conversations about our professional ambitions and intellectual curiosities took place on hallowed grounds and I left knowing that our conversations added new layers to its history. The trip truly renewed my sense of purpose as I approach my doctoral exams. Above all, I am grateful to ICW for carving out this space for graduate students to share in one another’s work, visions, and friendship.

Jillaine Laura

Jillaine Cook and Laura Dominguez

WILL COWAN  Our time at the Ranch, though chilly, burned too quick. I was deeply moved by Chris Girard’s story of the Muries and their love for each other and their love for the life systems they embraced. I was heartened by the emphasis on the importance of place and deep time and intimate knowledge only forged through decades and generations of lived experience in place. And I remain hopeful about an efflorescence in Native stewardship and traditional ecological management practices. Flying home over the great Salt Lake, the great divide on one horizon, and the great ocean on the other, I’m reminded again what makes the Great West: geography—immense, ancient, multitudinous, mysterious, magical.


Will Cowan

YESENIA HUNTER Being in the Tetons with my ICW peers was a turning point in my scholarly pathway. The mountains seemed unlimited and I felt inspired to let that shape my questions and ideas as I worked on my prospectus and thought about my future as a Historian of the West. Being able to meet colleagues in public history helped me to expand my desires for future work. And experiencing the Tetons with my colleagues settled for me that, whether we choose academic or public histories, our scholarly lives are intertwined and supported by good mentors and each other.


Yesenia Hunter

SIMON JUDKINS  The story of the lives of Olaus and Mardy Murie that we heard from Teton Science Schools’ Chris Girard on Friday night set the tone of the whole weekend for me. The connection to the past that she felt and projected through her storytelling had a powerful, almost spellbinding, effect. I was intrigued by her and by my reaction to the story. Over the weekend that self-examination became a broader curiosity about the process by which people impose continuity upon places and the forms that process takes.

Clearly, both the Muries and the Teton Science Schools staff were deeply invested in building a community where they could live out their environmentalist ethics daily. Their praxis functioned as a connective thread between the Muries’ past and our own, strengthened through songs and storytelling and acts of archival preservation and architectural imitation, all set against the venerable backdrop of the Teton Mountains. This past weekend we adapted this process and made it our own, created our own rituals, and told our own stories about “the West” and our role as mediators of its continuing re-imagination. So while I realize that this is a cliché with its own troubled history, it remains interesting for me to think about how “the West” continues to function symbolically to structure the ways that we re-connect with utopian pasts already realized. So too does it shape the new futures we imagine will one day mend the same broken planet the Muries inhabited.

DAN WALLACE  There are times as a grad student when you can climb above the stress and self-doubt and see with clarity the importance of your work. Our trip to the Tetons provided one of those moments. Staying at Murie Ranch reminded me that as historians of the American West we are knotted to a special landscape and the legacy of those who worked to understand and protect it. Not only do we have an obligation to tell an honest and inclusive history, we are also in a position to take up the mantle of environmental protection and conservation. All while finding the time to go for a hike.

Dan Simon

Simon Judkins and Dan Wallace

CARLOS PARRA  Learning about the Tetons’ natural and human heritage – particularly with respect to its place in U.S. conservation history – has inspired me as I revise my dissertation. My intellectual interests have moved along a variety of trajectories covering the U.S.-Mexican borderlands, the multiethnic urban West, and the cultural history of western North America, but it is the region’s unique environment that initially situated my interest in its human odysseys. Staying in Grand Teton National Park where Mardy and Olaus Murie lived and advocated for the protection of the West’s wildlands was a privilege because of the connection the Teton Science Schools forged between us and the Muries’ legacy. Graduate work often diminishes the romantic spirit that attracts us to studying history but learning about the Muries’ unending love for one another and the natural environment reaffirmed the fundamentally human character of the histories we work to recover and promote.


Carlos Parra

GARY STEIN  Majestic. I keep returning to this word. It is not one I often use when I speak (does anyone?). But the word must have rolled off my tongue dozens of times while amongst the Tetons with my ICW colleagues. The mountains were majestic; eating lunch on Jenny Lake was majestic; staying at Murie Ranch, where Olaus and Mardy Murie lived, proved majestic; hiking amongst the snow-covered trees and peering out to Grand Teton was breathtakingly majestic; and yes, the company and conversations were majestic as well. It is rare that a large group of people feels so overwhelmingly and similarly grateful to be together in a specific place. But over and over again, the graduate students kept sharing with each other how fortunate we feel to study with Bill Deverell, work with ICW, and have the chance to talk western history amidst the great landscapes of the West. Our hosts at the Murie Ranch and Teton Science Schools were incredibly gracious, passionate, and inspiring. It was refreshing to hear about the opportunities that lie ahead for us history graduate students, particularly those who land outside of the academy. The preservation of our natural wonders and diverse history and spreading that legacy to future generations describes the type of work that I am passionate about. And I was able to consider what some of that work may look like during our retreat to the Tetons. It was a rejuvenating trip with fellow students of the West, from sparking new conversations and initiatives to singing around the fire and watching the sunrise beam off the top of Grand Teton. How… majestic.


Gary Stein


The whole western history crew

Laura Dominguez 

In the early days of summer, I began reading a book entitled Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Its author, Lauret Savoy, describes herself as an “Earth historian” in search of imperceptible human stories that mark the land. “The American land preceded hate,” she affirms, and the “unvoiced history of this continent calls.” Far from neutral spaces, the landscapes we inhabit today are historical palimpsests containing fragments of migrations, settlements, acts of violence, and cultural expressions.

I first opened Trace while camped along Sandy Creek in Pinnacles National Park and read deeper into the text during an afternoon thunderstorm in Grand Teton National Park. For two summers in a row, I’ve been preoccupied with borders, ancestral landscapes, and the making of national memories. Like Savoy and many others, I recall a childhood spent in national parks and forests, those teachable landscapes that promise refuge from the everyday and, perhaps, encounters with what is wild, if not sublime. I began my career advocating for places that tell stories about the past, and, unsurprisingly, questions about forgotten histories in built and natural environments followed me to graduate school.

Likewise, for two summers in a row, I’ve watched in horror as state violence has (re)inscribed kidnappings, deportations, human caging, and the terror of mass shootings into the vast landscape of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. From a distance, I am convinced that how we conceive of our public lands is deeply intertwined with who we imagine ourselves to be as a country. Allow me to explain.


Young women on a bluff overlooking Rio Grande near Boquillas, Big Bend National Park, with Mexico’s Sierra del Carmen in the background (1955). Photo by Glenn Burgess, NPS Historic Photograph Collection

In July 2018, news quietly broke about Trump administration conservation policy as outrage erupted over family separations at the border. The Washington Post reported that senior officials at the Interior Department had dismissed evidence supporting the historic, cultural, and economic value of national monuments in a review they conducted of more than two dozen sites.

In that original review, submitted to the White House in August 2017, Ryan Zinke, former secretary of the Interior, recommended that the administration modify ten national monuments and shrink at least four Western sites.

President Trump instructed Zinke to conduct the survey in an executive order issued in April 2017. The president targeted 27 monuments that had been created over the previous two decades, arguing that his predecessors had overstepped the authority granted to them by the Antiquities Act.

At first glance, the administration’s efforts to punish immigrants and asylum seekers may seem tangentially related to its efforts to curtail protections for national monuments. The government shutdown left national parks and monuments unprotected for over a month last winter. This year began with waste overflowing in places like Joshua Tree and Yosemite National Parks, the literal effluence born of a toxic debate over a southern border wall. At a deeper level, however, a coherent ideology underlies both policy goals.

Like Trump’s pursuit of a border wall, his shrinking of monuments is not merely about enforcing the boundaries of a physical landscape. It’s also about controlling the narrative of that landscape — about determining who is included and who is excluded. By reducing and eliminating certain monuments, he is erasing artifacts and people from our national story. In this case, nonwhite people.


NPS personnel at Aztec Ruins National Monument pose in front of a reconstructed kiva, a structure sacred to Ancestral Puebloans (1940). Nineteenth-century Anglo-American settlers falsely attributed the New Mexico site to the Aztecs. Photo by George A. Grant, NPS Historic Photograph Collection

The idea that national parks and monuments are mainstays of whiteness is not new. In Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, Carolyn Finney argues that protected and commemorative landscapes are often places where people of color “experience insecurity, exclusion, and fear born out of historical precedent, collective memory, and contemporary concerns.” Savoy, too, pauses in the landmarked borderlands of Southern Arizona to listen for Indigenous, Mexican, and Black voices “[s]ilenced from public history.”


Desert Bighorn Sheep skull in Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, bordering Mexico and the Tohono O’odham Reservation (1957). Photo by John H. Davis, NPS Historic Photograph Collection

For all their complexity, international borders aim to separate nations, their people, and their resources, a task accomplished through webs of statutes, physical barriers, and force. No less political are the boundaries drawn around national monuments and parks, though these lines occupy a different place in our collective imagination. At their simplest, if perhaps most problematic, they safeguard what is wild and ancient. They are consecrated grounds – for the spiritual traditions they embody, the stories they tell, and the civic bonds they inspire. The lines around them may be delicate, but visitors cross them to nourish curiosities about the past, about the environment, and about what may connect us to one another across time.


Barbed-wire fence at the eastern boundary of Pinnacles National Park, located in San Benito and Monterey counties on the ancestral lands of the Ohlone people. Photo by the author, June 2019


Wood fences prevent visitors from disrupting sensitive terrains and wildlife areas in Grand Teton National Park, located in Jackson Hole on the ancestral lands of the Shoshone people. Photo by the author, August 2019

In his memo to the White House, Zinke recommended shrinking the boundaries of four national monuments: Gold Butte in Nevada, Cascade-Siskiyou in Oregon, and Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah. Reducing the protected acreage, Zinke argued, would restore “traditional uses,” such as grazing, mining, hunting and timber production.

A few months later, Trump announced plans to reduce Grand Staircase-Escalante by 45% and Bears Ears by 85%. The cuts removed from protection ancient cliff dwellings in the Dark Canyon Wilderness Area, rock art etched in sandstone canvases in Moqui Canyon and Grand Gulch, and other lands, ruins, and artifacts sacred to nearly a dozen tribes and pueblos.


Utah’s Valley of the Gods was among the landscapes excised from the Bears Ears National Monument in 2017. Undated photo by Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress

Zinke acknowledged the presence of archaeological and historical resources, but insisted that the region’s arid climate had preserved “virtually identical objects” in other areas. The secretary also portrayed large monuments as security risks, describing them as “difficult to police.”

The Interior department justified the review as an antidote to federal overreach. The Antiquities Act, it argued, granted minimal executive authority and limited the president to safeguarding the “smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.”

This is a distortion. Congress passed the Antiquities Act in 1906 in response to looting of Native American artifacts from archaeological sites in the Southwest. It gave presidents the ability to set aside and protect only land that federal agencies already owned and managed. The subsequent Organic Act of 1916 gave Congress the power to create national parks. With extensive input from the public, the legislature has re-designated many monuments as parks.

What constitutes “proper care” of objects with value, and indeed of our cultural heritage, has evolved considerably since. With Bears Ears, for instance, stakeholders drew generous boundaries in order to prevent future damage to sensitive artifacts scattered across a vast and varied landscape.


Wooden sign marks the path, physical character, and code of conduct at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, located on the ancestral lands of the Bannock, Blackfeet, Crow, Nez Perce, and Shoshone. Photo by the author, August 2019

National parks and monuments did not always work to preserve such histories. On the contrary, many of our earliest national parks and monuments were projects of racial erasure and violence. As historians like Karl Jacoby and Mark Spence have shown, the so-called crown jewel national parks — Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon — won designation through the expulsion of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands. The Antiquities Act itself responded to the looting of Pueblo ruins in the Southwest, but its proponents did not suggest that sacred artifacts or control of those places be returned to native peoples. Twentieth-century park officials helped construct border fences and apprehend undocumented migrants to control movement through border-adjacent monuments.

Six national park units currently claim the U.S.-Mexico border as their southern boundary. We don’t know nearly enough about the forces, patterns, and people that made them. What does it mean, for example, to relocate prevailing ideas about national parks – concepts like national destiny, historical memory, healing and physical fitness, and racialized belonging – to the borderlands? If we reconceptualize parks and monuments as bordered spaces, how else might we connect their construction to other twentieth-century border-making projects? Places like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Coronado National Memorial, and Big Bend National Park stand in the shadows of other western landscapes. How might recovering and interpreting silenced histories in these places help change public narratives about the peoples who live in and migrate through these lands?


Located in El Paso, the Chamizal National Memorial commemorates the signing of the Chamizal Convention in 1963, which marked the end of a century-long dispute between the U.S. and Mexico over the shifting border of the Rio Grande. The memorial features a 1992 mural entitled “Nuestra Herencia/Our Heritage,” by artists Carlos and Marcos Flores. Photo by Thomas C. Gray, NPS Historic Photograph Collection

In recent decades, the federal government has worked to conserve places that reflect a fuller picture of our national history. Under the Obama Administration, the NPS funded ambitious studies to center long-ignored people and places for the appreciation of future generations. The NPS Centennial in 2016 was a celebration of diversity and inclusion in our public lands, symbolized by its call to #FindYourPark or #EncuentraTuParque. Today, the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Kern County, the Pullman National Monument in Chicago, and the Stonewall National Monument in New York City bear witness to the struggles of people of color, women, queer communities, and the working class.

Bears Ears Monument, too, was the result of an unprecedented collaboration between a coalition of Native American tribes and federal agencies.

Tribal nations, environmental advocates and other stakeholders are waging legal challenges to Zinke’s review, and those challenges are still working their way through the courts. The Bureau of Land Management released an Environmental Impact Statement for the monument’s new management plan at the end of July.

Beyond the events in Utah, conservationists and policymakers continue push back against this regressive agenda. In January 2018, nine members of the National Parks System Advisory Board resigned in protest over the administration’s disregard of its efforts to honor the beauties and heartaches of American history. And in February 2019, more than 100 lawmakers proposed a bill, the Antiquities Act of 2019, to make clear that only Congress can change monument designations, including those made by a president.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration has made its intentions clear: a return to nineteenth century ideologies of settlement and exploitation in which centuries of human activity are dismissed in pursuit of economic gain. In the case of Bears Ears, the administration is also reviving a painful history of broken promises.

The president’s choice of a former lobbyist for the oil and agricultural industries, David Bernhardt, to replace Zinke underscores the extent to which resource extraction will remain a priority. Early signs indicate the new secretary intends to amplify his predecessor’s attacks on public lands in the west.


View of the Mexican pueblo of Boquillas del Carmen from Big Bend National Park in Texas (1959). Photo by Jack E. Boucher, NPS Historic Photograph Collection

The building of a border wall, too, will disrupt sensitive cultural landscapes and wildlife corridors in border-adjacent sites such as Big Bend National Park and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

By fortifying that southern boundary, Trump is seeking to determine not just who belongs in our past, but also our future.


An earlier, abbreviated version of this post appeared as an Opinion essay in the Los Angeles Times on February 22, 2019.

Born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, Laura Dominguez received her undergraduate degree in architectural history from Columbia University and her master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Southern California. She worked in preservation advocacy and education in Los Angeles and San Francisco before returning to USC to pursue doctoral studies in history in 2017. She is the recipient of a Del Amo Doctoral Fellowship and a Diversity, Inclusion, and Access Fellowship from the Graduate School. Laura is interested in the intersections of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality in the built environment of nineteenth and twentieth century California, including questions of memory, identity, and imagined pasts. Her research on the Chicano Movement and the cultural landscapes of East Los Angeles was published in California History in the fall of 2016, and she has written about Southern California’s LGBTQ built environment for KCET’s Lost LA. Her interest in the study of the American West stems from her regional upbringing and her commitment to the conservation of its diverse and vanishing heritage. 

Laura can be reached at ladoming@usc.edu or on Twitter @lad_inLA


July 10, 2019

John and I spent several days on the fishing ranch we frequent outside of Pinedale.  As usual, the canine population rivaled the human.  People: the two of us; our friend the ranch manger; John’s grandmother; and John’s uncle.  Dogs: Ghost, Gambler, Rosin, Humungous; and Rooney.  “Mungous” is a Turkish Akbash, a herding dog.  He is a gentle giant, except when he’s not.  He guards the ranch, as does Rooney, named for the British footballer.  The two of them patrol the huge borders of the ranch, mostly at night, setting up howls and fierce barks when they want their presence to be known.  Rosin, an indefatigable border collie, was new this year, named for the rosin that cowboys and cowgirls use to sticky up their ropes.  John and I had our first fishing success – ever – on this trip, catching two beautiful Wyoming cutthroat trout.  One we put back, one we took home for lunch.


A highlight of the ranch trip was spotting this bald eagle on our last day.  He or she sat atop this pole for well over an hour, fending off a gusty wind by alternately leaning into it and sinking talons into the wood.  We had seen golden eagles before, but not one of these.  Amazing.


On our way back through the Star Valley of Wyoming, we go through Freedom, a town that straddles the Wyoming/Idaho border.  Here is the town garage.



You might reasonably think Freedom refers to that kind of fervent mountainous patriotism we see all over the place on this drive.  “Guns and God” kind of freedom; bald eagle kind of freedom.  But that’s not quite it.  Established not long after the Civil War ended, Freedom is the oldest community in the Star Valley.  Its odd jurisdictional geography – Wyoming on one side of the street, Idaho on the other, has a purpose.  Mormon polygamists, who started the town, could simply walk across the street from Idaho (tough on polygamy) to Wyoming (more lenient) to escape or at least postpone prosecution.  Ergo, the town’s name.

On through Idaho, a stop at the Lava Hot Springs to soak in 105 degree water (alongside the road still called “Old Oregon Trail Road”), and straight on into Salt Lake.  Hot here, and likely hotter today as we make our way to St. George for the last night of our journey.