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By Gary Stein

Graduate school is a marathon. There are numerous “markers” along the way, certain mementos of the necessary hills to climb in order to reach the finish line, PhD in hand. There is finishing coursework, becoming a TA, passing your qualifying exams, honing in on a Prospectus for your dissertation, and finally, completing the dissertation – in many respects the final lap and main event and group relay all rolled into one.

I am currently in my 2nd year, so I am almost done with coursework and am in the midst of my 2nd semester as a TA. I also came to USC with an MA in History, so I have been holding the baton for some time now and am working on crafting a dissertation topic. In this post, I hope to articulate some of the ideas brewing in my head at this moment (though as many grad students know, one week can bring an entirely different set of ideas, hopes, doubts, dreams…than the one before it). I will share some of my experiences that have led me to this point and have (for the most part!) enhanced this long and winding process.

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“River cabin,” built by former communard at Salmon Creek Farm in Albion, Mendocino County, CA. Photo taken by author.

“Building a Communal Environment: Back-to-the-Land in Mendocino,” my Master’s Thesis, analyzed the 1960s-70s back-to-the-land movement in Northern California, particularly in the coastal rural towns of Mendocino County. A key intervention of the thesis was highlighting the contributions of back-to-the-landers to the modern environmental movement and their role in heightening the ecological consciousness of mainstream society. It argued that back-to-the-landers, like those in Mendocino, did not merely “drop out” and live communally for a short, insignificant period of time. They remained politically and socially active and committed to ecological principles and working cooperatively within a group. I looked at back-to-the-land communes that lasted for over 20 years, contributed to the proliferation of food co-ops, the availability of organic foods, and the fight against agribusiness and corporate agriculture. These migrants helped shape the culture that endures in the North Coast region. They built their own unique dwellings using as little of the earth’s space and resources as possible and succeeded in legalizing their structures. They fought to save local forests from clearcutting, over harvesting, and the spraying and injecting of herbicides, and they continue to fight for these and other environmental initiatives today.

Their main objective of moving to the country was effecting change through lived experience, making the personal political. The idea proved central to the activism of the 1960s and is an important component of modern environmentalism, in addition to the more familiar legislative and institutional gains. This work led me to think about different conceptions of the environmentalist ethic and how different modes of living causes, or becomes, conscious efforts to preserve and/or improve the landscape. I am interested in analyzing who gets to be included in those decisions as well as the groups that have historically been excluded or disregarded.

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Poster for “hike-in” protesting Disney’s proposed development of Mineral King. Courtesy of USC Special Collections, collection no. 0037, Mineral King Development Records.

I continue to be fascinated by people’s relationship with, and perceptions of, nature. I have previously written about the Civilian Conservation Corps, post-WWII suburbanization, and the development of natural and historic preservation in the 20th century. In our Western History seminar with Professor Bill Deverell, I wrote about the formation of the Pacific Crest Trail, a “wilderness way” connecting the borders of Mexico and Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. I then looked at the fight over Mineral King, a proposed ski resort by Walt Disney in Sequoia National Forest in the mid-1960s. The Forest Service had traditionally adhered to Gifford Pinchot’s “wise use” model, prioritizing timber and other commodity resources. But I argue that this began to shift in the 1930s, in part due to the work of the CCC and the formation of the PCT, which opened up numerous national and state parks and forests and contributed to greater wilderness preservation efforts and a growing appreciation for outdoor recreation. This pushed the Forest Service to value non-commodity resources such as outdoor recreation. But it also led the Service to utilize the “wise use” model for recreational development, such as Disney’s plans for the massive ski resort. The proposal was protested by the Sierra Club and young environmentalists who incorporated the values and grassroots activism of the movements of the 1960s to their fight to save Mineral King. The proposal was eventually defeated and Mineral King became part of Sequoia National Park, under the supervision of the Park Service.

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CCC enrollees receiving a lesson in the use of the saw. Reforestation camp, unidentified location, 1933. Courtesy of USC Special Collections, collection no. 7000.2, Hearst Corporation Los Angeles Examiner photographs, negatives, and clippings.

As I consider and prioritize larger questions within my own work, some or all of this could become central to my dissertation, or I could end up going in another direction. That, in part, is the process of graduate school. It can be exciting, enlightening, frustrating, and daunting. But I have gained a lot from the entire experience, and though I still have a long way to go, I can sense the final lap on the horizon. I am grateful to have worked in Western Environmental history, examining how people are shaped by their environment as much as they shape the world around them. And as a native of Queens, NY, I am thrilled to continue learning about the culture and environment of the American West and its integral place in American history.


Gary Stein received his undergraduate degree in history from Queens College, a City University of New York (CUNY) and his Master’s in History from Claremont Graduate University. His Master’s Thesis received the Center for Communal Studies Graduate Paper Prize in 2017. Stein joined USC’s Ph.D. program in 2016. 

By Carlos Francisco Parra
cparra@usc.edu

At the close of the 2010s, Univision KMEX Channel 34 and Telemundo KVEA Channel 52 regularly competed for the highest ratings among all television viewers in Los Angeles according to the Nielsen ratings service. KMEX and KVEA’s high ratings — beating the long-established big three English-language networks — speaks to the demographic growth and vitality of the Spanish-speaking Latino American communities of the greater Los Angeles region. The ratings bonanza currently enjoyed by the local Univision and Telemundo stations is a dramatic counterpoint to the relatively humble but significant technical origins of Spanish-language television in the U.S. and in Southern California more than half-a-century ago.

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An official advertisement placed by KMEX Channel 34 in a September 1962 issue of La Opinión. Variations of this advertisement were placed in billboards around Los Angeles that fall.

The first Spanish-language TV transmissions in the Southland occurred as the result of transnational broadcasting developments in the Mexico-U.S. border region. One of the most significant investors and proponents of Spanish television north of the border was Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta, the founder of one of the first TV stations in Mexico and the dominant partner in a network he formed through an alliance with his former competitors, Telesistema Mexicano (now Televisa). Azcárraga Vidaurreta recognized an opportunity when he started XETV Channel 6 in Tijuana as a means of serving San Diego-area TV viewers. As the first TV station in northwestern Mexico, XETV began broadcasting in April 1953 primarily in English and was financially successful among San Diegans, who only had XETV and one other TV channel to choose from at the time. Channel 6’s success compelled Azcárraga Vidaurreta to launch Tijuana’s XEWT Channel 12 as a Spanish-language station broadcasting his Telesistema programming to attract Spanish-speaking TV viewers not only in that Mexican border town but also in the San Diego area.

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An advertisement for a UHF converter device sold by Thrifty Drug Stores (Los Angeles Times, 1962).

Encouraged by XETV and XEWT’s reception, Azcárraga Vidaurreta attempted to enter the larger U.S. market by distributing popular Telesistema shows to U.S. broadcasters. The Mexican media magnate found a willing partner in Raoul Cortez, a Mexican immigrant who in 1955 founded KCOR Channel 41 in San Antonio, Texas as the first Spanish-language TV station in the continental United States. Cortez, who had also founded the first full-time Spanish-language radio station in the U.S. southwest, welcomed the Telesistema’s programming to fill Channel 41’s airtime. Although popular among Mexican San Antonians, KCOR Channel 41 operated at significant financial losses and struggled to stay on the air due to Anglo advertisers’ indifference. Again recognizing a rare opportunity, Azcárraga Vidaurreta worked with his longtime U.S. business associates to purchase the station from Cortez in late 1961. Relaunched as KWEX Channel 41 in February 1962, the San Antonio station became the U.S. flagship of the new Spanish International Network (S.I.N.). With momentum building, the group of transnational investors set about tapping the largest Spanish-speaking audience in the border region: Los Angeles.

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Local TV stores and repair shops advertise UHF conversion services in this advertisement in La Opinión.

When the transnational S.I.N. investors — which included Azcárraga Vidaurreta’s long-time U.S. associates such as XETV’s general manager Julian Kaufman — set their sights on Los Angeles, they faced the challenge of starting a brand new TV station in a format that most TV sets at the time could not reach. In early television history, TV broadcasters were limited to transmitting their programming on channels 2-13 in the very high frequency (VHF) signal band; channels 14 and beyond (such as KCOR/KWEX Channel 41) broadcast on the ultra high frequency (UHF) band could not be accessed by early TVs without an expensive converter box. While not all U.S. cities had the gamut of VHF channel allocations used, Los Angeles – as the entertainment capital of the world – had all of its VHF channels claimed by the early 1960s. In L.A., as throughout the rest of the nation, investment in a UHF station was considered a foolish waste of money.

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The iconic Sears store in Boyle Heights used La Opinión to advertise UHF-capable TV sets specifically invoking buyers’ ability to then reach KMEX Channel 34. The price of the UHF converter box sold by Sears would cost $145.78 when adjusted for inflation in 2018 while the 19-inch TV console advertised in the bottom would cost $1,622.55 today. Tuning in to watch el canal 34 in its early days was often an expensive investment.

Nevertheless, the S.I.N. business partners pressed on and received Channel 34 as their UHF signal assignation under the call letters K-M-E-X (Mexico), a call sign which clearly asserted the new station’s origins as well as its intended audience. Julian Kaufman, experienced in the technical and advertising challenges of running XETV for a U.S. audience, served as KMEX’s acting general manager throughout the summer and fall of 1962 as its facilities were built. As KMEX’s transmitter went up on Mount Wilson and its studio offices were built across the Paramount studios in Hollywood, Kaufman went about informing Angelenos about the need to purchase UHF converter boxes for their TV sets. Through coverage in La Opinión, the principal Spanish-language newspaper in the region, as well as the Los Angeles Times, KMEX got word out about the impending arrival of California’s first Spanish-language station. Throughout the summer of 1962 local papers throughout the region used the KMEX launch as a marketing technique to encourage consumers to purchase UHF converter boxes. By the time KMEX was ready to debut, various electronic stores and TV parts shops reported a significant increase in UHF converter purchases. Contests and street-side UHF conversion demonstrations held in predominantly-Mexican American neighborhoods by KMEX staff helped prepare viewers for the arrival of la televisión en español in L.A.

 

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A Mexican American-owned TV shop uses KMEX’s debut to offer UHF conversion services via an October 1962 edition of the Corona Daily Independent.

After months of excitement, KMEX Channel 34 beamed onto the Southern California airwaves for the first time with a live ceremony on Sunday, September 30, 1962. Fernando Escandon read the first comments ever aired on KMEX: “Muy buenas tardes señoras y señores, KMEX Televisión Canal 34 inicia en estos momentos sus transmisiones” (Good evening ladies and gentlemen, KMEX-TV Channel 34 is now beginning its broadcasts). The half-hour dedication ceremony was attended by Academy Award-winning actress Rita Moreno, Mexican Consul Luis Orci, L.A. Mayor Sam Yorty, and City Councilman Edward Roybal, the first Mexican American on the L.A. City Council since 1881. Afterwards KMEX aired a two-and-a-half hour newscast of President John F. Kennedy’s state visit to Mexico City earlier that summer followed by bullfighting and pre-taped performances from Mexico’s Palacio de Bellas Artes. Volumes of Telesistema Mexicano programming, sent north daily by Azcárraga Vidaurreta, bolstered the station’s early programming. The initial opening KMEX made in the UHF band significantly encouraged the development of other L.A.-area UHF stations such as KCET Channel 28 which debuted two years later.

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Thrifty Drug Stores worked with KMEX Channel 34 to promote UHF conversion in this La Opinión advertisement.

Much has changed in the TV landscape of Southern California since KMEX Channel 34 first went on the air more than fifty years ago. As a sign of the Latino community’s growth, KVEA Channel 52 hit the airwaves as the second full-time Spanish-language station serving the L.A. area in 1985 in the new Telemundo network, threatening its counterpart’s dominance of the L.A. Latino market. KMEX Channel 34 itself has changed, having since become one of the most important stations in the Univision network, the successor entity to S.I.N. The historical development of Los Angeles’s Spanish-language media is a rich odyssey that greatly reflects the role of the U.S.-Mexican border region’s transnational movement of people and ideas in the formation of community identity and cultural institutions.


By Carlos Francisco Parra is working on his Ph.D in the USC History department.