By Carlos Parra

After weeks of demonstrations against racist police brutality this past summer, Latina and Latino groups in greater Los Angeles commemorated the 50th anniversary of the August 29, 1970, Chicano Moratorium, the largest anti-war march ever organized by people of color in U.S. history. The 30,000-person protest against the Vietnam War and its disproportionate number of Mexican American deaths ended in violence as demonstrators and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) clashed along Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles. Four people were killed, including Rubén Salazar, a journalist at the Los Angeles Times and news editor for KMEX Channel 34, the first Spanish-language TV station in California. Salazar’s death transformed him into an almost mythological hero of the Chicano Movement, the Mexican American mobilization against anti-Mexican discrimination in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Salazar’s work at KMEX-34 during the summer of 1970 underscores the decades-long struggle against police brutality waged by communities of color and the potential for ethnic-oriented Spanish-language TV to contribute to this struggle.

Rubén Salazar in the KMEX-34 control room in 1970, courtesy USC Libraries.

Mobilizing Spanish-Language Television to Raise Ethnic Consciousness

Although numerous investigations since 1970 have failed to produce positive proof that Salazar’s killing was a targeted assassination carried out by the LASD, the 42-year-old newsman’s work reporting on anti-Mexican police brutality perpetrated by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), the LASD, and the California Highway Patrol, made him an adversary of the Southland’s law enforcement establishment. Throughout the 1960s, Salazar’s reporting at the Los Angeles Times brought greater public awareness (if not yet greater public scrutiny) of the issue of police brutality. In joining KMEX-34 (one of the founding stations of what is now the Univision Network), Salazar was in a position to raise Spanish-speaking Latinos’ political consciousness about an issue many viewers of Spanish-language TV knew all too well.

As news director at KMEX, Rubén Salazar emphasized the station’s unique role in reporting on issues facing Mexican Americans as the sole Spanish-language TV station in Southern California. News programming on KMEX-34, including its Noticiero 34, dates back to its debut in September 1962, but Salazar’s emphasis on the station’s direct coverage of Latino-related stories was a contrast with the station’s budget-minded reliance on newswire reports and newspaper stories. Salazar lost no time in defining the editorial vision he saw for KMEX-34. Salazar told KMEX staff that the “Spanish-speaking community” could be activated through the “force of relevant information” to “become not only an important power in itself but also a more meaningful contributor to American society as a whole.” In addition to making the nightly newscast more “formal and concise,” Salazar believed Noticiero 34 needed “supplemental programming” which went beyond relaying the day’s principal news stories. KMEX could better explore issues it covered in its newscasts—such as bilingual education, the Chicano Movement (and resistance to it by “Mexican-American conservatives”), Chicano culture, immigration, police relations, and “César Chávez’s crusade”—through station-produced documentary features.

The lack of surviving KMEX footage from 1970 prevents us from directly examining much of Salazar’s TV work on police brutality, but the Salazar Papers at the University of Southern California help us piece together parts of this history half a century later. In the summer of 1970 KMEX regularly devoted airtime to the concerns of community activists that at least six individuals had died in the East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station by July, with LASD officials typically citing suicide or murder at the hands of another cellmate as the cause of death. Many Chicano activists accused the LASD of brutally killing the inmates themselves. Notably, the Chicano Moratorium march route began in front of the LASD’s East L.A. Station in Belvedere Park.

Chicano Moratorium, August 29, 1970.  Ken Papaleo, Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Salazar channeled many community members’ sentiments in his high-profile criticism of police brutality, such as in KMEX’s coverage of the LAPD’s killing of two Mexican nationals that summer. On July 16, LAPD officers conducted an operation to arrest a suspect wanted for a murder in the San Francisco Bay Area. The officers tracked the suspect to a downtown L.A. Skid Row apartment building where they mistakenly shot and killed cousins Guillermo and Beltran Sánchez while also threatening the lives of other residents in the building. The Sánchez cousins were unable to communicate with the police because they did not speak English.

The East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station in Belvedere Park today. Photo by the author.

Salazar channeled many community members’ sentiments in his high-profile criticism of police brutality, such as in KMEX’s coverage of the LAPD’s killing of two Mexican nationals that summer. On July 16, LAPD officers conducted an operation to arrest a suspect wanted for a murder in the San Francisco Bay Area. The officers tracked the suspect to a downtown L.A. Skid Row apartment building where they mistakenly shot and killed cousins Guillermo and Beltran Sánchez while also threatening the lives of other residents in the building. The Sánchez cousins were unable to communicate with the police because they did not speak English.

As condemnation of the LAPD grew for its role in the Sánchez cousins’ deaths (including calls for a federal investigation), KMEX identified survivors of the shootout. Salazar aired the interviews during a Noticiero 34 broadcast, immediately provoking the LAPD’s ire. The day after the newscast, two LAPD officers visited KMEX-34—at the time located in the heart of Hollywood across from Paramount Studios—to “express their concern about the showing of the interviews.” The officers told Salazar that they feared the broadcast could negatively “impact” the police department’s image. “Besides, this kind of information could be dangerous in the minds of barrio people.”

Salazar’s continued criticism of police abuses mounted to the point that the Los Angeles Chief of Police personally confronted him. After Salazar broadcast several newscasts and published at least two detailed columns in the Los Angeles Times criticizing the LAPD’s police brutality and its deteriorating relationship with the Mexican American community, Police Chief Edward Davis contacted KMEX requesting a meeting with both Salazar and KMEX general manager Joe Rank. Salazar told Rank he was not interested, who in turn told the station receptionist to call the police chief’s office to decline the meeting.

However, KMEX co-founder/co-owner Frank Fouce Jr., a state officer in the California Republican Party, ultimately prevailed on Salazar and Rank to visit Chief Davis at the now-demolished Parker Center LAPD headquarters. Sitting at a narrow table surrounded by policemen, Davis accused Salazar of lying in his reporting and demanded a retraction. “Chief, I’m not retracting it,” Salazar answered. “I have it on tape.” Although we are no longer privy to KMEX’s coverage of police brutality in 1970, the tenor of Salazar’s columns in the Los Angeles Times and the LAPD’s reactions to his KMEX broadcasts suggest that law enforcement agencies feared the potential consequences of the heightened scrutiny that media criticism of police abuse could raise, particularly among Latinos tuned into ethnic-oriented Spanish-language TV. It is telling that the Los Angeles law enforcement establishment saw a threat in the ideas Spanish-language TV could plant in the minds of Latino viewers.

A mural by artist Johnny Torres at 3903 Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. commemorates Rubén Salazar and the Chicano Moratorium whose march route ended across the street at Laguna Park. The park was renamed in Salazar’s honor in 1970 after his killing. Photo by the author.


After the mass mobilization that gripped the United States during the summer of 2020 following George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, it is more important than ever to consider police reform from a long-term historical perspective. The history of Salazar’s activist journalism highlights the role that media such as ethnic-oriented Spanish-language TV can play in these conversations. Although the LAPD’s aggressive opposition to Salazar’s reporting may have overestimated KMEX’s actual ideological impact on viewers, using broadcast journalism via the medium of television to better inform Mexican Americans about the discrimination they might face from the police certainly helped raise viewer awareness about their rights as U.S. citizens and residents. Educating viewers about their rights and the proper role of the police force and the limits of its power was an important contribution for Spanish-language TV to make when broadcast media options for Latinos in greater Los Angeles were limited. Spanish-language TV stations like KMEX-34—the sole outlet of its kind in the region until 1985—helped Mexican Americans and other Latinos learn about issues of race and police brutality otherwise ignored by the Southland’s main English-format TV stations. As Rubén Salazar put it, Spanish-language TV was a means of “communicating with the Mexican American community directly and in their language.” The world in which Salazar and his KMEX associates lived in is long past, but their work is important for laying out the role ethnic-oriented media such as Spanish-language TV can play in multiracial conversations on police reform as a means of building a more just society.

For more on the 1970 Chicano Moratorium please see The Chicano Moratorium 50 Years Later: ​Retracing the Mexican American Struggle Against the Vietnam War.

Carlos Francisco Parra is doctoral candidate in history at the University of Southern California focusing on Latino and U.S.-Mexican borderlands history. His dissertation – “A Community on the Air: Latino Los Angeles and the Rise of Spanish-Language TV in the United States, 1960-1990” – explores how L.A. area Spanish-language TV stations Univision KMEX Channel 34 and Telemundo KVEA Channel 52 created notions of a U.S. Latino ethnic identity. He has previously published on the building of the first U.S.-Mexican border fences between Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, in the Journal of Arizona History as well as on the cultural assimilation of Mexican Americans in the early Albuquerque public school system in the New Mexico Historical Review. You can follow him on Twitter @NomadicBorder and at his website:

By Julie Cordero-Lamb, Jared Dahl Aldern, and Teresa Romero

Note: This article is modified from the original published in News from Native California magazine Spring 2018, in Volume 31, Issue 3.

After the fires and the mud, now is the time to bring good, Indigenous fires back to Southern California on a broader scale.

In Santa Barbara County, just below Romero Canyon, lies an old family cemetery in Montecito.  The old cemetery is today unmarked, without headstones, and it carries the remains of ancestors for generations.  The cemetery holds both Chumash and Californio ancestors carrying a distinct cultural history and landscape that is familiar among Tribal communities in Southern California.   The old Romero trail is in actuality an old Chumash trail that led to villages through the Coastal ranges along with many other trails. Stories of these trails have been passed on orally through families for generations.  It is a place where families gathered traditional foods and medicines, including acorns. 

In Romero Canyon. Photo by Teresa Romero.
In Romero Canyon. Photo by Teresa Romero.
Just before the massive Thomas Fire, large manzanita, ceanothus, and other chaparral shrubs filled Romero Canyon from floor to rim. Photo from Ventura County Trails.
Within Romero Canyon and nearby, shrubs encroached on sacred sites and Chumash gathering areas that, prior to settlement and fire-suppression policies, had been kept clear of large shrubs by periodic Chumash cultural burns. Photo by Teresa Romero.

Just before the massive Thomas Fire of December 2017, large manzanita, ceanothus, and other chaparral shrubs filled Romero Canyon from floor to rim. Within the canyon and nearby, these shrubs encroached on sacred sites and Chumash gathering areas that, prior to settlement and fire-suppression policies, had been kept clear of shrubs by periodic Chumash cultural burns.  The ferocious Thomas Fire had no problem clearing the closely packed shrubs, burning out even their large, extensive root systems and leaving only loose ashes in the root holes, which extended, in some places, up to six feet underground. When the heavy rains of January 8 and 9, 2018 rolled off the topsoil that the fire had baked to a waterproof finish and then surged into the underground “pipes” formed by the now-vacant root holes, whole hillsides came loose and they crashed with their mud, boulders, and trees onto houses, living people, plants, and animals, and the bones of ancestors. What the fires had not consumed and the smoke had not choked, the floods, finally, engulfed.

In the face of these catastrophes, it is time for federal, state, and local agencies to ensure a place at the table for the knowledgeable, Indigenous experts on native plant species, fire, and hydrology, and to negotiate cost- and time-efficient agreements to reintroduce cultural fire, ecosystem by ecosystem, microclimate by microclimate, as the traditional, regenerative horticulturalists of Native California have always done. In Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, site of the massive Thomas Fire and the deadly debris flows that followed, modern Chumash practitioners have worked to reclaim their heritage as tenders of the land. Since there are no current agreements regarding the use of cultural fire management between any Chumash tribal organizations and government agencies, traditional horticulturalists do the grueling work of “being the fire” by hand. They choose a tiny area, rich in culturally important plants, acquire permits and secure access, carefully observe plant species and plant-animal interactions, recognize and note interconnections, bloom times, seeding patterns, and soil quality. They say their names, all of them, in Šmuwič, English, and Latin. They sing. Then they do the backbreaking work of pruning, coppicing, hand-grinding, mulching, and weeding out the dead brush and grasses. They use few or no power tools.

Members of the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective pruning back the plant known in Šmuwič as qayas (scientific name: Sambucus caerulea; common name: blue elderberry). San Marcos Preserve. Photo by Julie Cordero-Lamb.
Completed pruning and brush clearing of qayas/Sambucus caerulea/blue elderberry, with upright watersprouts left behind for later harvesting for clappersticks and tools. Photo by Julie Cordero-Lamb.
Members of the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective gather berries from their tended qayas/Sambucus caerulea/blue elderberry. San Marcos Foothills Preserve. Photo by Julie Cordero-Lamb.

The tiny patches tended by Indigenous Californians grow lush, open, species-diverse, and more water-efficient. Fire, when it comes to such managed areas, burns low to the ground and moves through quickly. The tree crowns remain green and healthy. Any structures in such areas are easily defended. After the flames have moved through, the seeds that follow fire germinate at the first rain, since they survived the low-temperature burn.

But when the fire reaches the vast, un-tended zones that surround the green patches of hand-tended gathering areas, the dense, bone-dry fuel loads explode into fires of historic proportions, destroying homes, lives, livelihoods, and ancient landscapes. Severe, extensive burns in thick chaparral, on or near steep slopes with unstable soils, bring a high risk of subsequent mudslides. Closely following, intense rains nearly guarantee those extremely destructive debris flows. Some ecologists and activists argue that this type of fire is “natural,” but saying that chaparral naturally grows to be dense, impenetrable, and explosive is like saying elders and children naturally starve without the work and intervention of those who care for them. These results are only natural when we do not tend to or nurture chaparral, elders, or children. The sheer age of healthy oaks, sycamores, bay trees, and elderberry in Southern California point to a long history of more frequent, less intense burns. Burns like the Thomas Fire kill many of these trees. It is clear that fire is beneficial when it occurs at appropriate frequencies, scales, intensities, and severities. We know – from elders, from knowledge conveyed by songs, stories, and ceremonies, from scientific studies, and from personal, working experience – that the following burn frequencies, with the burns’ acreages properly scaled, are appropriate for their respective plant communities:

  • Annually under oaks and pines where the goals are to ensure good harvest and to control pests and diseases
  • Three times in ten years in oak orchards or pine groves where the goals are to increase the diversity of plants growing under the trees and to encourage young tree seedlings to grow into maturity
  • Annually around springs, maintaining shallow-rooted grasses and annuals (and perhaps one or two shade trees) where the goal is to sustain water level and flow
  • Every three years in grasses and shrubs used for baskets, arrows, and bows, where the goal is to ensure the growth of straight shoots and sprouts in the plant materials
  • Every ten to fifteen years in chaparral, where the goal is to maximize seed and fruit yield and to control pathogens
  • Much longer intervals in sage (which is killed by higher-frequency fire) and in patches of denser vegetation (to maintain them as denning, nesting, or hiding habitat for various animals)

These burning frequencies will vary as the various plant communities intersect with each other, and fire-lighters always keep hydrology in mind: the idea is to balance the distribution of shallow-rooted grasses and annuals with shade trees and shrubs throughout the watershed so that surface water flow is maximized, groundwater is as high as possible, and plants stay as green and fire-resistant as possible. Also, as climates change, fire seasons shift, droughts lengthen, storms intensify, and invasive plants and animals show increasing potential to move into freshly burned areas, Indigenous horticulturalists may adjust the seasonal timing of their burns or follow them up with maintenance programs to hand-clear any undesirable plants that sprout. A current buzz phrase among land managers is adaptive management, by which they mean the systematic improvement of management by learning from the outcomes of past practices on the land. Indigenous horticulturalists have been adaptively interrelating with land since time immemorial, and the environmental dynamics of the twenty-first century are only the latest in a long history of sometimes tumultuous change to which these practitioners have responded. In that sense, they are the ultimate adaptive managers.   

There will always be big fires in Southern California, especially during Santa Ana wind episodes, but when they burn, they do not have to be as destructive as was the Thomas Fire. The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy – a framework for federal, state, local, and tribal fire agencies to collaborate – puts forward three key goals: 1) to respond effectively and efficiently to wildfires; 2) to develop fire-adapted communities, and 3) to restore and maintain landscapes. Much funding, training, and news stories have focused on the first goal (firefighting), even as wildfires appear to be increasing in frequency. Some journalists and columnists have recently focused more attention on the second goal (fire adaptation) – and it is absolutely necessary to better fire-proof our communities and homes with appropriate building materials, rooftop sprinkler systems, and adequate defensible space surrounding them. To extend the idea of defensible space to rural and remote landscapes would be to approach the third goal (fire restoration). When forests and shrublands are thinned and opened (with hand tools, with chainsaws and tractors, or with prescribed and cultural fire), and especially when they are thinned and opened in a targeted, strategic fashion that accounts for wind corridors, potential wildfire behavior, and good locations for cultivating important plants such as oaks and herbaceous foods, medicines, and materials, then not only will groundwater levels rise and will more of these cultural and natural resources survive big fires, but firefighters will have more fuel breaks and safety zones to aid in their defense of lives, homes, and homelands.

It is time for the era of deliberate suppression of cultural burning practices to end. Cultural fire suppression has culminated in a social, unnatural disaster. Chumash people have worked with tribes in Northern California on cultural burns, and they are ready to apply the knowledge gained to cultural burns in Southern California in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito mudslides. For federal, state, and local agencies to help bring the restoration of tribal fire to a broader scale in California, they must collaborate with tribal practitioners at every step in the process (after all, it’s not cultural fire without the culture). And to successfully collaborate with Native people whose practices have so often been ignored or actively suppressed, non-Native fire scientists and managers will need to acknowledge Indigenous knowledge as valid, act in accordance with the diverse, local traditions of the tribes in their areas, and maintain a willingness to share decision-making power and an openness to learn from knowledge that is sometimes shared in unfamiliar formats. The required investment of funds, time, and effort into Indigenous fire will help to prevent a reoccurrence of recent tragedies and will return many other benefits to the people and land of our state.

Julie Cordero-Lamb is a traditional Chumash herbalist and the founder of the Syuxtun Plant Mentorship Collective, through which knowledgeable Chumash practitioners from several Chumash tribal organizations develop partnerships with land agencies and work to return the health of land and indigenous people. 

Jared Dahl Aldern, Ph.D., is an environmental historian and fire practitioner. Retired from educational and tribal government staff careers, he is a lead investigator and research associate with the West on Fire research and education initiative of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and a co-founder of the Sierra-Sequoia Burn Cooperative.

Teresa Romero is a traditional Chumash practitioner who participates with the Syuxtun Plan Mentorship Collective and has worked with Tribes for nearly 20 years on Tribal restoration projects in both Michigan and California.

It is hard to leave the Tetons each year to make our way back home across the Great Basin and the edges of the Mojave.  This year was no different, but we both felt called home after three weeks out.  A highlight of every trip across eight years is our stop each year in St. George, Utah.  We have our favorite Best Western, we have our favorite ice cream place (the soda shop throwback “Iceberg”) and our favorite restaurant, The Painted Pony.  We are usually there for Fourth of July, but this year we came through much later.  No matter.  It’s still fun for us, the town is speckled with historical markers calling out LDS history of houses and the faithful, and the sandstone environs call my son to shrug off the surly bonds of gravity and climb. 

On our way there out of Wyoming, we passed through Soda Springs, where I spotted this antler-buying entrepreneur.  Soda Springs was a well-known overland trail stopover in the 1840s and 1850s.  A century later, it was a fascinating outpost of Cold War vigilance – I’ve written before about the sentry boxes – still there! – where local, ever-vigilante volunteers stood for hours surveilling that big Idaho sky for Soviet bombers.  A century apart but so tied together by processes of empire making and empire defending.    

When we crested Cajon Pass, which so neatly bisects the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, a day or so later, the smoke from the Bobcat Fire lay thick all around us.  Midday looked and felt like twilight, an oppressive and ominous twilight.  Our thoughts are with all those who face fire in the West across so many circumstances of tragedy, heroism, fear, and grief.

It is good to be home.  But it is also sad and scary.

View of the Tetons. Photo by Bill.

Every summer, ICW director Bill Deverell takes a road trip across the West with his son, John. These trips inevitably lead him to reflect on the landscapes and histories of the West. Although COVID-19 delayed their trip this year, they’re finding off-the-beaten-path routes from Southern California to Colorado to Wyoming and back again.

Oh that I could push this weather, minus the wind, back over the Tetons, across the Great Basin, and drop it right atop the fires across the West.  Yesterday we played a weather waiting game, not unusual at this time of year.  My son and I have watched the trees turning yellow for ten days now, so we knew summer was giving way to autumn.  The night temperatures dropped, the mornings turned very crisp.  Still, yesterday was warm, t-shirt and shorts weather.  But rain was coming, maybe snow.  We thought it would roll in around 2:00, but weather answers to no timetable but its own.  By six, the winds had picked up, with lashing rain, then hail, then snow.  The storm knocked power out here at the house more than once.  It is a tree killer: I went for a walk early this morning (temperatures in the high 20s) and had to walk around dozens of limbs, boughs, and entire trees that couldn’t win against the wind and heavy, wet snow.  I had to walk very carefully, looking up now and again to make sure another tree wasn’t about to topple.  It’s sad to see juvenile aspens and conifers come down here.  And the poor hummingbirds, the few that are still around after their brethren have headed way south, are struggling in the breeze.  Our feeders have iced over, so today we’ll thaw them and fill them up, urging the little guys to stock up and head south.

Every summer, ICW director Bill Deverell takes a road trip across the West with his son, John. These trips inevitably lead him to reflect on the landscapes and histories of the West. Although COVID-19 delayed their trip this year, they’re finding off-the-beaten-path routes from Southern California to Colorado to Wyoming and back again.

Grizzly Creek cuts through the White River National Forest in Colorado not far from Glenwood Springs.  It runs into the Colorado River in gorgeous Glenwood Canyon.  On August 10th, a fire of “human origin” began to burn in the rugged canyon country.  The “Grizzly Creek Fire” rapidly grew to tens of thousands of acres and, at this writing in early September, is still burning.  The fire whipped through both sides of Glenwood Canyon and forced the shutdown of Interstate 70.  This route is the one that my son, John, and I usually take to get to Colorado Springs on our annual road trip.  We drive from Pasadena to St. George, most often on July 3rd, where we stay for Fourth of July festivities.  Then we catch I-70 and head out through Grand Junction, Glenwood Canyon, and Glenwood Springs (where we usually stop to “take the waters” at the local geothermal springs and pools).

Photo by Bill Deverell

Not this year.  COVID-19 and fires changed almost everything about our trip across the Great Basin and up into the Rockies.  We left late in the summer and missed whatever cut-back Fourth of July activities might have taken place in St. George.  We hunkered in our favorite Best Western motel.  We monitored the Grizzly Creek fire, watching live footage of it roaring through Glenwood Canyon and seeing firefighting helicopters suck water up out of the Colorado River.  The conflagration re-routed us – we went south and then east across the Utah/Arizona border, into the Navajo Nation, then northeast past the Four Corners area and an overnight stay in Cortez, Colorado.  At Kanab, near where I took this photograph, we encountered a pretty big mask-less crowd marching beneath a giant TRUMP/PENCE flag.  We did not stop.

COVID-19 made for a weird journey.  We felt kind of trapped in the car.  In Cortez, we drove around til we found an empty rural road.  We switched seats, and 15 year-old John practiced his driving.  That was fun, and he’s making good progress.  

A huge fire and a global pandemic – this has been a trip like no other.  

Photo by Bill Deverell

Every summer, ICW director Bill Deverell takes a road trip across the West with his son, John. These trips inevitably lead him to reflect on the landscapes and histories of the West. Although COVID-19 delayed their trip this year, they’re finding off-the-beaten-path routes from Southern California to Colorado to Wyoming and back again.

This memorial, which looks pretty recent to me, sits on a lonesome and windswept expanse of Sweetwater County, Wyoming.  It reminds me of the markers that overland settler colonial parties left in memory of those who died on the trail more than a century and a half ago.  If those eras mark a timeline connecting, say, 1860 with 2020, what do we know about the vast middle period of 160 years?  Wouldn’t we expect that such memorials would be placed in 1900, 1920, 1950, and more recently?  What happened to them?

This memorial is not far from the White Mountain petroglyphs.  These astonishing carvings, which date to 200-plus years ago, depict horses, game, and people, and are tied to as many as four different indigenous populations once (or still) in the region.   My son and I have visited these several times – they are thankfully off the beaten path a bit, on BLM land, though they draw many thousand visitors a year. 

It is all mysterious and captivating, these ways of marking space and making stories across the vast reaches of the inter-mountain West from the first peoples to the present.

Abby Gibson

“We all change on entering the fourth dimension,” Henry B. Fuller announced to his dearest friend of forty years, Hamlin Garland, while sitting in Garland’s sun-bathed study in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles in the spring of 1937. Garland, the aged prairie radical and Pulitzer-prize winning literary voice of the Midwest, had long thought of his friend Fuller as inscrutable, a “ghost in flesh, a wraith in pantaloons.” But when Fuller casually uttered this astonishing remark about the fourth dimension, he really was a wraith, perhaps wearing ghostly pantaloons. Garland had lost his dear friend and literary confidante nearly ten years earlier in 1929. The loss struck him deeply and prompted him to move further west to Los Angeles, a city at that time, teeming with people calling themselves mediums and psychics. Mourning the loss of Fuller, awaiting the birth of his grandson in Hollywood, and perhaps inspired by the psychic experimental rage then gripping the City of Angels, Garland threw himself into the world of mediums and spirits in Los Angeles to better understand the transitory nature of life and the certainty, but not finality, of death. Six years later, he published a report on the psychic experiments and séances he conducted while living in Boston and Los Angeles in a large tome entitled Forty Years of Psychic Research: A Plain Narrative of Fact (1936), which he intended to be his last word on the subject of the fourth dimension. The spirits roaming the mission ruins of California around his Hollywood home however, had other ideas.

Less than a year after swearing off further psychic studies of the spirit realm, Garland was drawn back in, this time investigating a set of strange and apparently unexplainable archaeological discoveries related to the California missions and unearthed across much of southern California. Along his journey from mission-to-mission in search of these artifacts Garland encountered more than just the whispers of long-dead padres and neophytes; he encountered a new narrative of the past. For Garland, the mission landscape of Southern California was alive with the voices of its past inhabitants, all of whom were only too happy to tell their stories, stories that challenged the established history of the California missions and the mission fathers. The mission spirits, who supposedly spoke to Garland through a medium, refuted the popular tale of the missions as places where selfless padres like Father Junípero Serra uplifted the “heathen” Indigenous peoples of California. Instead, the spirits of the mission fathers expressed regret for their actions, particularly towards Indigenous people living at the missions. Garland, as a believer in the world of spirits, recorded their messages from beyond the veil and published them in the final book of his prolific career, The Mystery of the Buried Crosses: A Narrative of Psychic Exploration (1939). Garland’s final foray into the world of psychic research points to a strange convergence of occult interests with what Carey McWilliams famously called the Spanish Fantasy Past–a carefully narrated vision of Spanish California’s history that served as a politically and commercially powerful tool for Anglo institutions and figures throughout the region particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. That convergence—when the historic Father Junípero Serra met his wraith counterpart—is our primary point of interest here.

Hamlin Garland, Son of the Midwest

Long before the whispering spirits of psychic Los Angeles, the California missions, and the Spanish West enthralled him, Hamlin Garland became a force in nineteenth-century western literature with his feet firmly planted in the earthly plane—the northwestern prairie states of Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota to be exact, a region he called the “middle border.” Garland made his career as a towering figure in Gilded Age western literature by describing the middle border region unclouded by rosy nostalgia, in favor of brutal firsthand accounts of the area’s hardship, poverty, and cultural and physical isolation. His staunch commitment to Midwestern realism in famed works such as Main-Travelled Roads (1891) and his later Middle Border series, one of which, Daughter of the Middle Border, earned the 1922 Pulitzer prize in biography, made him an enormously well-respected although not always monetarily successful, author in the 1880s and 1890s. At the height of his acclaim, Garland was in regular contact with some of the biggest literary figures of the day, including Walt Whitman, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Joseph Conrad. Garland’s commitment to hardy literary realism also translated into his interest in and writings on leading issues of his time. During his radical phase in the 1880s and 1890s, Garland engaged with virtually every radical idea in post-Civil War American thought—Herbert Spencer’s evolutionary theories that would come to be called Social Darwinism, the rise of populism and the People’s Party in his own middle border region, Henry George’s single tax movement, and even proto-feminist ideas from the emerging New Woman movement. As the “Dean of American Letters,” Garland tapped into the tensions of life in Gilded Age America, especially in the prairie West, in a way that hit home with his readers at the time, even if he is largely forgotten today. 

Hamlin Garland at the height of his career in 1894. The Garland Society. 

Garland’s interest branched out from political radicalism and the rough life he knew in the isolated northwestern prairie states as the twentieth century dawned. In 1907, he published his first piece on the subject of the occult, The Shadow World, a book he described as a straightforward account of the mystical happenings he had experienced in his newfound fascination with the realm beyond the veil. Still, he firmly maintained in the preface that he had no intention of becoming further involved with psychic research: “…I am, above all, a man of the open air, of the plains and the mountains, and do not intend to identify myself with any branch of metaphysical research. It is probable, therefore, that this is my one and final contribution to the study of the shadow world.” But Garland’s interest in spirits and spiritualism—a religious movement and set of beliefs based on the communication with the spirit world through mediums—increased dramatically as he aged, as the people he knew and loved began to die, and after he moved to Los Angeles. By 1929 when his dear friend Fuller left this world, he was fully engrossed in proving human survival after death. It would be the last endeavor of his long and winding career.

“City of Heretics”: Psychic Los Angeles 

When Garland moved to Los Angeles in 1929, the city was at a high point in widespread interest in the occult and all things psychic. In the thirties, you could say the term “City of Angels” was often meant literally; spirits, ghosts, demons, angels, or whatever you might be disposed to call them, swooped and swarmed throughout the sprawling metropolis—or so many Angelenos believed. Carey McWilliams, perhaps the most prolific and profound student of Southern California, preferred the term “City of Heretics” to describe Los Angeles during this time. In his classic book, Southern California: An Island on the Land (1973), McWilliams noted the long history of the occult in Southern California, particularly in Los Angeles and Pasadena, but stressed that it was not until the 1920s and 1930s that it became a normal part of life for most residents of the city. For McWilliams, the “cultism” in Los Angeles in the thirties encompassed everything from the extravagant Aimee Semple McPherson’s Four Square Gospel temple in Echo Park to the almost endless supply of psychics, palm readers, and diviners on street corners throughout the city. “It’s a witch’s cauldron,” he wrote with more than a little disdain, “of the inconceivable, the incredible, and the fantastic.” McWilliams offered two explanations for the rage for all things psychic and spiritual in Los Angeles: the transient nature of its residents and its topography and geography. The many migrants passing through the city, he suggested, would bring with them the different belief systems they picked up along their journey West. These ideas and beliefs would pool and collect in Los Angeles, like soggy tea leaves at the bottom of a drained teacup. His second reason was Los Angeles’ geographic situation at the point where the desert meets the sea. While McWilliams was no believer in the occult, he had the sense that there was something about the city’s immense natural beauty and unique landscape that mysteriously brewed a substantial population of occultists. Los Angeles, he suggested, held an essential mystery that fed the psychic imagination. It was into this occultist brew that Garland immersed himself when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1929.

A psychic palm reader in South Gate, Los Angeles, circa 1938. Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Photographers Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The Mystery of the Buried Crosses

Garland must have been aware of Los Angeles’ reputation as either a “City of Heretics” or a site of unusual spiritual activity. Like McWilliams, he was astonished by the number of people calling themselves mediums and psychic researchers in his new city, noting that “Los Angeles was full of mediums. The personal columns of the Sunday papers set forth the claims of astrologists, psychometrists, mental scientists, and clairvoyants–clairvoyants were especially numerous.” The opportunities to engage with the spirit world were endless. In 1936, Garland encountered one such opportunity. After one of his many speaking engagements throughout the city, Garland received a letter and a set of supposed spirit photographs from attendee Gregory C. Parent of Redlands. In the letter, Parent told a fantastic tale about a period in 1915 when his late clairvoyant wife, Violet, received messages from long-dead California mission padres and neophytes detailing where she could find buried Indian treasure across much of Southern California. According to Parent’s story, the treasure was primarily a set of metal crosses that mission Indians had buried deep in the dry southern California soil to protect them from Mexican thieves during the secularization of the missions in the 1830s. Using the mission spirits as guides, Parent explained, he and Violet unearthed a total of 1,500 crosses that year, breaking the soil with their spades exactly where the spirits instructed. Parent assured Garland that he had many of the unearthed crosses in hand at his Redlands apartment, which Garland confirmed on a visit. 

An example of the metal crosses the Parents claimed to have unearthed in Southern California featured in The Mystery of the Buried Crosses. Hamlin Garland, Mystery of the Buried Crosses: A Narrative of Psychic Exploration (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1939).

The crosses, kept in a meticulously organized set of seventeen glass cases, held Garland spellbound. The crosses featured symbols and engravings, that, according to Garland and the Parents, had no logical explanation. The spirits explained to the Parents that the Native-crafted crosses were far older than Spanish arrival in the Americas and actually originated in what is now Guatemala some time before the twelfth century. The engravings and even the form of the crosses themselves thus featured symbols that, according to recorded history, should have no explanation. Why would the Christian symbol of the cross or engravings of “Moors” and “Arabs” appear on pre-contact Indigenous artifacts? Here, then, was the essential mystery and exciting appeal of the crosses: where did they come from, why did they end up in Southern California, and how might their discovery upend the established history of the Americas? We can see why Garland, as a believer in the workings of spirits, jumped at the chance to unravel the mystery of the buried crosses. He recalled his reasoning for taking up the Parents’ quest: “I believe we can validate the collection [of crosses] and if we do we will open a wide historical vista in early California history. They have the further value of bearing directly upon the problem of survival after death. For these reasons, the story of these curious relics strongly appeals to me.”

The pain of Fuller’s death still gripping his heart, Garland threw himself into the quest to prove the historic origins of the crosses and to ultimately prove the survival of the human soul after death. If he could locate more of these crosses—which he believed he could only accomplish with help from spirit guides—he could, in effect, confirm the existence of an unseen spirit realm operating in the midst of the earthly plane. Without any further deliberation, Garland agreed to finish what the Parents had started. For the next year, the mystery of these buried crosses consumed Garland, his wife Zulime, and daughter Constance, and they spent their days laboring under the hot California sun searching for any traces of this lost history of California and the world of spirits.

To aid them in their efforts to communicate with the spirit world, Garland hired a medium from Chicago, Sophia Williams, to connect them to the mission spirits. With a watchful eye on Williams, the Garland family listened in amazement as the voices of California past—Father Junípero Serra, mission neophytes, Spanish conquistadors and explorers such as Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and Hernán Cortés—began streaming out of their medium’s chest, barely reaching above a whisper. These “invisibles,” as Garland called them, travelled with the family and Williams by car as they traversed a stretch of Southern California six hundred miles long and four hundred miles wide. Over one year, the party travelled from coastal Mission San Juan Capistrano, to the dusty roads of rural Moorpark, to Mission San Luis Obispo, and back again, in search of buried Indian treasure. Imagine Garland, the venerable literary phenomenon of the late nineteenth century, now a man of seventy-four, climbing the cactus-combed hills of Southern California, and armed with his spade and whispers of the past, relentlessly digging in search of new vistas in California history and proof of the spirit world. The image feels lifted out of an Indiana Jones film.

Hamlin Garland and hired medium Sophia Williams dig as instructed by the spirits somewhere in Southern California. Hamlin Garland, The Mystery of the Buried Crosses: A Narrative of Psychic Exploration (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1939).

Garland, still committed to realism in the midst of his fantastic spiritual interests, also sought to verify the origins of the crosses through the testimony of living experts in the history of mission-era California. He sent photographs of a few of the crosses to museums across the Americas, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City, and the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. Experts at all three institutions kindly but firmly responded to Garland’s inquiries that the crosses likely originated from a ten-cent store and were only twenty or thirty years old, a far cry from twelfth-century Guatemala. Williams herself was found not to be entirely truthful in her mediumistic abilities. Constance Garland, beginning to suspect Williams a fraud, found that her father asked Williams “leading questions” that made it quite easy for Williams to fabricate answers from “Father Serra” or “Cortés” that Garland was waiting to hear. For his part, Garland ended his year with Williams and the buried crosses confused and a bit skeptical of the whole affair. “This whole thing is astounding,” he confided in a letter to a friend, “and yet I can’t rid myself of the feeling that it is all coming from out of our own minds.” 

Casting these doubts aside, Garland decided to publish his account of the project, The Mystery of the Buried Crosses. The book was not well-received. Five months after publication in 1939, Garland had only managed to sell eight hundred and fifty copies, and many booksellers refused to purchase the book at all. Just four months later in March 1940 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage, Garland joined his friend Fuller in the fourth dimension, a sad and strange ending for the “Dean of American Letters” and the former golden child of the literary West. 

The Ghosts of the Spanish Fantasy Past 

The Mystery of the Buried Crosses is certainly a weird read. It is easy to dismiss its central idea—that spirits really live among us as shadows and whispers—and the author entirely. Of course, I do not believe Garland was actually speaking with the dead. Still, I am nevertheless struck by the mission-centric nature of this spiritual investigation, and I think it reflects and perhaps adds a new–and bizarre–element to McWilliams’ notion of the Spanish Fantasy Past, a broad cultural project in Southern California that was particularly strong at the time of Garland’s treasure hunt for the crosses. Although not everyone, even in the “City of Heretics” believed in psychic claims, is it unreasonable to ask if and how the Spanish Fantasy Past absorbed or interacted with some of those ideas and beliefs during this “psychic period” in the history of Los Angeles and greater Southern California? And if so, how might it alter our understanding of the Spanish Fantasy Past as an integral part of Southern California regional consciousness and identity?

As McWilliams and other historians have explained, the Spanish Fantasy Past acted as a history lesson for Southern Californians and tourists, capturing and commodifying California’s Spanish past, particularly the missions, for mass consumption in the Southland. Critically, the Spanish Fantasy Past worked to sanitize the missions of any abuse of Indigenous peoples in Southern California and to craft a careful narrative of the Mexican presence in California as non-threatening and inconsequential. This rendering of Mexicans in Los Angeles and California as “tame” and fixed in place in the past, as William Deverell has argued, was especially important in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution in the 1920s, which terrified many of the Anglo inhabitants of nearby Southern California. The emphasis on California’s Spanish heritage to the exclusion of its Indigenous and Mexican histories, also served to position the state’s history neatly into a progressive moral narrative of Anglo-Saxon ascension in California and the far West as a whole. Anglo-Americans were the natural successors to the work of the mission fathers in settling and developing California. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a burst of preservationist and aesthetic fervor for the missions burnished the Spanish Fantasy Past into the Southern California landscape, thereby stabilizing this particular vision of California’s past to serve the political and commercial needs of the most powerful figures in the region. It was precisely the stability of the narrative of the Spanish Fantasy Past that made it so politically and commercially viable for those whom it served. 

So when the spirit of Father Serra explained to a bemused Hamlin Garland in Mystery of the Buried Crosses that his zeal as a missionary had led him to greatly exaggerate the faults of the neophytes at his missions and even to abuse them, he destabilized that sentimental vision of the Spanish Fantasy Past. Wraith Serra, as created by Garland and his hired medium, saw the error of his ways after death and openly repented his actions as a missionary. Although he and Williams conjured them, Garland was nevertheless baffled by these admissions. He confided in his ghostly friend Fuller later in the book that he was “deeply interested in the change of attitude which these missionary spirits admit.” Fuller responded, “Yes, that is important. We all change on entering the fourth dimension.” Garland believed he had broken open a new “vista” in the history of California and the missions in his interactions with the spirit world that directly challenged the dominant narrative of the missions as righteous spaces of Indigenous salvation. The mission fathers, including the most renowned of them all—Junípero Serra—were not quite so righteous after all. What else might the spirits of the dead reveal about the true history of the past? The possibilities were endless because the past was shown to be moveable and unstable, thanks to this tool of psychic research. 

It may seem strange to explore the idea that something as fantastical and fictitious as the kind of psychic exploration Hamlin Garland pursued could undermine the fictions of the Spanish Fantasy Past. And here, I am merely exploring that idea, noting that the Spanish Fantasy Past and the rage for psychic research, perhaps significantly, coincided in time and place. In a city packed with psychics and mediums, is it possible that the ghosts of the Spanish Fantasy Past could find fertile ground on which to compromise the stability of that story? Maybe, if enough people believed. 

Abby is a lifelong Southern Californian. She traded the West Coast for the central plains after graduating from Pepperdine University to attend the University of Oklahoma and work there as the Book Review Editor for the Western Historical Quarterly. She earned her master’s degree from OU in the spring of 2019 and returned to Los Angeles to continue her studies in the history of the U.S. West at USC. Abby’s research interests include the Civil War and Reconstruction era, Civil War memory, and spatial history in the West.

As an institute dedicated to the study of the history and culture of California and the American West, histories of European settler colonialism, Indigenous experiences and resistance, and the lasting public legacies of figures such as Junípero Serra make regular appearances in our work. Given the recent movements to topple and remove statues of Serra across California, we asked Indigenous leaders and activists, scholars of Spanish-era California, and Catholic leaders to comment on the events of past weeks.  Below are their thoughts in support of toppling, moving, or removing statues of Serra, and on the shifting public understandings of his role in Spanish empire-building in California and North America. 


Pedestal where a statue of Junípero Serra stood near Union Station and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. Photo by ICW.

“(Yaangna) In this moment of shifting, reconciling, and healing it is important to remember that Racial Justice and Indigenous Sovereignty are inexplicably linked to one another.  We honor the Peoples of the original villages, our Tongva, Tataviam, Chumash, and Acjachemen relatives, the longtime stewards of this territory.

As monuments are removed from our public spaces through cathartic action some impose a narrative of violence onto these actions but in reality, the violence occurred long before that and continues today.  The violence has been memorialized in these objects.  The violence occurred through the installation of these symbols of domination and dehumanizing actions. Today this communal moment is a ceremonial cleansing of this space, a step forward in returning balance to these lands…

…If supporters of Serra can’t accept his role in the atrocities performed by the Mission project, they cannot deny his complicity in the ethnic cleansing of Native Peoples and the eventual genocide of them as well. Upon his canonization in 2015, author and poet Deborah A. Miranda an enrolled member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of California wrote, ‘I have a responsibility to my Ancestors and to my own descendants to speak up and try to create a clearer understanding about why Junípero Serra’s canonization would be another historical flogging of California Indians.  No, Serra was not the only one involved.  Yes, he was part of an intricate machine run by the Spanish Crown’s political desires, the Spanish military’s might, and the Vatican’s multiple ambitions to convert and acquire both souls and wealth.  But Serra was also a man who, like many before him, was faced with a choice: go along with the program, achieve his own personal goals, and ignore the larger crimes – or take a stand against inherently inhumane and unchristian acts against a people who were obviously vulnerable to diseases and technologies far different from their own.’

Serra made his choice…

…The legacy of Serra is a part of history that has been pacified to create a more palatable retelling of the Missions. The legacy of Serra in itself is gaslighting in the truest definition of that word.

As we stated, it is time for reconciliation and with that, it is time for the WHOLE truth, all sides of the history need to be told.  Not just for us, but for future generations.  We need to understand the impact of slavery, brutality, and historical genocide.”

 Joel Garcia

Visual Artist, Designer, Cultural Organizer


“[The] removal of Father Junípero Serra…I was against him becoming a saint.  You lose some, you win some. I don’t believe removing Junípero Serra is the answer to 500 years of trauma. History and truth should be written in order for my people to heal. We will never forget the pain of our ancestors and no one in history will forget the statues. The statues will always be a dot on the maps of history. Sometimes facing the truth may hurt but covering it or removing it will not help. I would rather teach truth than hide lies, it is not rewriting history but correcting history…Life should not be about surviving but about working for the greatness of who we were made to be.  To be visible.”

Julia Bogany

Culture Officer for Tongva of San Gabriel


“The police murder of George Floyd, and the seeming impunity with which his killer acted, has thrown into dark relief innumerable societal inequities and historical injustices.  Long simmering Indigenous anger about Father Junípero Serra, the controversial founder of so many of California’s original Franciscan missions, has erupted and prompted the destruction and removal of numerous statues commemorating the man.  This should surprise no one.  For generations, there has been a growing divide between the historical Serra, who devoted himself to the universalism of Catholicism, the suppression of individualism, and the renunciation of materialism—and modern California to which his legacy is now bound.  Add to those incongruities a heightened public awareness of the harm that Indigenous people endured in the missions, where their cultures came under assault, their bodies were punished, and their communities were battered by disease, and it is no surprise that public statues honoring Serra’s life and work provoke anger.

Until this moment, however, Serra has endured as a popular symbol of California because every generation since Serra’s death in 1784 had projected upon his likeness the values that it deemed timeless and worthy of emulation.  Yes, there has always been a counter narrative, but not one that has been on public display.  Paintings and sculptures of Serra have variously depicted him as the agent of a fearsome god, a miracle worker, an empire builder, a trailblazing explorer, a promoter of agriculture, a protector of Native Americans, a founder of missions, a towering Americanized Christian, a protector of the poor, a Founding Father, a promoter of peace, an indomitable man of Olympian strength, a gentle padre, an outdoorsman and, most recently, as an immigrant from south of the border, a devotee of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and as Saint Junípero.  Today, however, many who gaze upon Serra’s likeness see none of that but only a ruthless imperialist who oversaw the destruction of Native culture with impunity.  While it would appear that Time is Up for Serra, new chapters will almost certainly be written about this man and new visual representations of him will be crafted.  What they will look like is as of now unknown.”

Steven Hackel

Professor, University of California, Riverside

Author of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father


“I am sympathetic about the historical mistreatment of California’s native tribes and the generations of suffering they endured. I see no reason to prolong or contribute to that suffering, especially with a public monument that is for them a daily reminder of a painful history…

The public will be invited to engage in this process [of moving the statue of Serra in a public park in Ventura] and share their input. When a community discussion has been scheduled to discuss the Father Junípero Serra statue, this information will be shared openly and transparently by the City of Ventura. I emphatically state my admiration for the Chumash elders and their support and direct requests for a non-violent relocation of the Serra statue.

Serra is lauded for the past 150 years as the founder of California. The humble Franciscan priest had the vision to understand the plight of California’s indigenous peoples as they suffered the collision with the 18th Century.

Protestors see Serra as a symbol of their cultural loss and liable for all documented abuses during the 60-year Mission Period (1769-1831).  He is unjustly condemned as racist and source of the apocalypse of murder and genocide which began 50-years after his death.

An icon of the Catholic Church, St. Junípero Serra should not be the symbol of such suffering.”

Fr. Tom Elewaut

San Buenaventura Mission


Additional Resources

In addition to the statements from diverse voices quoted here, we have also compiled links to additional resources on the controversy around Serra, scholarship on his life in California, and resources on reconsidering the history of the Spanish mission system in California.

News Articles

Miranda, Carolina. “At Los Angeles Toppling of Junípero Serra Statue, Activists Want Full History Told.” Los Angeles Times, June 20, 2020. Zh3vuoJehoTzQcWKm0nyoTlm1H8WGQPo1w

Molina, Alejandra. “We Have a Story to Tell: Indigenous Scholars, Activists Speak Up Amid Toppling of Serra Statues,” Religion News Service, July 7, 2020.

Ray, Lexis-Olivier. “‘This is the Beginning of Healing:’ Descendants of Tongva, Chumash, and Tataviam Tribes Organized the Toppling of Junípero Serra Statue in the Birthplace of L.A.” L.A. Taco, June 22, 2020.

White, Richard. “Op-ed: What the Fire at San Gabriel Mission Left Behind,” Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2020.

Academic Resources

The Critical Mission Studies program is a University of California is an initiative that supports Indigenous perspectives on the California colonial missions and their aftermath.

Beebe, Rose Marie and Robert M. Senkewicz. Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. University of Oklahoma Press.

Sandos, James.  Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions. Yale University Press.

Sandos, James. “Junípero Serra’s Canonization and the Historical Record.” American Historical Review, December 1988.



Dr. Selma Calmes

Tuberculosis (TB) was the leading cause of death at the turn of the 20th century.  The only treatment at the time was thought to be complete bed rest, preferably in a warm, dry climate.  Our climate is hot and dry, so Southern California attracted thousands of TB patients in the early 1900s.  These patients were overwhelming the County hospital downtown, especially once railroad connections with the East were complete.  It wasn’t unusual for TB patients to be taken directly from the railroad station to the county hospital.  The state established a Bureau of Tuberculosis in 1915 and paid counties to care for these TB patients.  LA County’s Board of Supervisors responded by building Olive View Sanitarium near a large commercial olive grove (thus the name “Olive View”), twenty-five miles from downtown Los Angeles.   Olive View Sanitarium opened in November 1920 with nine patients and seven buildings.

OV 1

Postcard of Olive View, 1920s. From the collections at The Huntington.

Olive View was built on the “cottage plan;” wards were small cottages with sun porches.  Patients had to lie still and weren’t allowed to laugh or even sing, so their lungs could “rest.”  Because the hospital was geographically isolated, and because few people had cars then, patients at Olive View seldom saw their families.  Visiting hours were only on Sunday afternoons.  This isolation from their families led Olive View patients to make their own little community.  There was a library, a chapel, a barber shop, a post office, a radio station, and a school.  A monthly newsletter, The Olive View Point, was written and illustrated by patients and kept patients informed about what was happening.  In the 1930s, Olive View produced most of its own food, with fruit orchards, a hog ranch and chicken farm.  All these projects were run by patients, many of whom couldn’t work in regular or full-time jobs because of their debilitation from TB.  Most of the hospital staff lived on the site.  Olive View grew to be the largest TB sanitarium in the western US and was famous for its beautiful campus.

OV 3

Postcard of Olive View, 1920s. From the collections at The Huntington.

OV 5

In 1947, the first drugs to cure TB were developed.  Olive View was an important test site for these new drugs, which miraculously changed many patients’ lives. The success of these drugs led Olive View to become an acute care hospital in the 1950s.   The ghosts of Olive View’s past as a TB sanitarium can still be seen in some of the remaining old buildings and in its archives, now housed at USC Libraries Special Collections.


Dr. Selma Calmes graduated from Baylor College of Medicine in 1965. She began a residency in anesthesiology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966 and was the only female resident in the program. She served as chair of the department of anesthesiology at Kern Medical Center and at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center.  In 1994, she was named vice-chair of the department of anesthesiology at UCLA School of Medicine. Dr. Calmes was instrumental in preserving Olive View’s archives and in arranging for them to be preserved by USC Libraries Special Collections.



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.

St. Vincent Sanitarium 1880s HEH

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.

Barlow USC

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.

Olive View 3 HEH

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).