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The Goddess of Fruit
In the spring of 1931, a most unlikely figure could be seen in the new Luncheon Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange. By all accounts, he went about his business with as much alacrity and stamina as the most ardent trader. But this man did not deal in stocks. A devoted Marxist, he considered such financial speculation the work of "parasitic exploiters." In any other circumstances, this brown-skinned Mexican would not have gained access to the exclusive club. But his name was Diego Rivera, and he was considered by many to be the second-greatest living painter (and Picasso was not available). In this inner sanctum of an economic system he abhorred, Rivera was covering the walls with his Allegory of California.
In creating the mural, Rivera acted on his belief that art should relate to the conditions of life of its audience. He drew inspiration from the work of pre-Columbian artists, which "had been intensely local: related to the soil, the landscape, the forms, animals, deities, and colors of their own world." In envisioning the mural while in Mexico,Rivera knew he wanted to "represent California with the three bases of her richness-gold, petroleum, and fruits." As a stranger to this land, he would have to find some way to immerse himself in California's actual and symbolic landscape. At first, however, it looked like Rivera's entry into the Golden State would be denied. The FBI had a file on the artist, but the lobbying of San Francisco's elite convinced the State Department to open the way for him. When Rivera finally arrived, he hit San Francisco like El Nino-creating a storm of controversy, he was perceived as both a loveable and a destructive child. The painter Maynard Dixon, expressing an artistic nativism, charged that Rivera was an "inappropriate" choice to paint the mural because he had "publicly caricatured American financial institutions." The San Francisco Chronicle fueled the speculative fire with a "composite photograph": on the space Rivera was to paint, it superimposed a detail from one of his Mexican murals "showing Ford, Rockefeller and Morgan trying to lure 'Miss Mexico' from the paths of communism to the fallen ways of capitalism." "Will Art Be Touched in Pink?" the Chronicle asked.
As it turned out, Rivera tinged his mural with orange and other colors he gleaned from the California countryside. He took trips into the field to look at the landscape: down the coast to Monterey and east across the great Central Valley and into the foothills of the Gold Country. As one friend explained, these excursions were his way of "sizing up California, getting the feel of its people, the curve of its hills, the color of its air, sea, fields and sky, the nature of its activities, soaking up like a thirsty sponge the flow of unfamiliar life around him, trying to decide ... what should go into the quintessential distillation of the land and its people."
At the center of his mural, Rivera painted what another friend called "the heroic figure of California, the mother, the giver." Wheat, the staff of life, encircles her neck. With her left hand she offers up peaches, pears, apples-and the signature fruit of California, the orange. With nature personified as fecund mother, this might seem to be a universal image rather than one created specifically to embody the California landscape. But at the time, Rivera's California struck many observers as too particular. In this generalized Madonna they saw the specific features of Helen Wills Moody, tennis champion. "Soon a cry was heard," Rivera explained. "California was an abstraction and should not be an identifiable likeness of anybody." But to Rivera, Moody represented "California better than anyone I knew-she was intelligent, young, energetic and beautiful." With her intelligence, youth, and "Grecian features," Moody embodied Rivera's understanding of California as a Mediterranean land, "a second Greece." In this, he was simply reflecting the image that boosters had been projecting of California since the nineteenth century. Greece and Italy were famous for their fruits, and California promoters had long used icons of the fruit goddess Pomona, with her horn of plenty or overflowing bowl of fruits. The colorful labels of orange crates often featured Pomonaesque women holding up a sample of the golden fruit, ripe for the consumer's taking. Female icons of fertility had long since taken on local attachments. Rivera's Allegory is thus grounded in the particular soil of California, and it allows us to see the place of fruit between heaven and earth.
The Growth Machine and the Empire of Oranges
Rivera explained that "California itself is symbolized by a large female figure-a woman of tanned skin and opulent curves modeled after the rolling hills of the landscape, with one hand offering the subsoil to the labor of the miners, and with the other offering the ripe fruits of the earth." His fruit-bearing symbol is heavily laden: she is at once rolling hills, wheat fields, fruit-bearing trees, the mother lode, the eternal maternal mother, and a new woman ("intelligent, young, energetic"). And, of course, she is nature. We might aptly put the words of Walt Whitman into the mouth of this multifarious embodiment of California: "I am large, I contain multitudes."
She is also surrounded by multitudes. A whirl of men and machines are remaking the landscape around her. Nature's cornucopia stands amidst icons of industrialization-oil derricks, ocean liners, refineries, a crane, a dredging machine, an airplane. Above ground, a redwood has been sawed through. An engineer-holding a primary emblem of science, the compass-is formulating a plan (no doubt for the control of nature). To Rivera's eye, the United States represented industrial, scientific, and mechanical forces, while Mexico embodied agricultural, mythic, organic ones. Although California "is more agricultural than industrial," he explained, "its agriculture is highly advanced and mechanized." He also detected the Mexican past sedimented under California's Yankee present. California thus represented a hybrid landscape, part north, part south, part pastoral, part industrial.
California appears to have what Rivera called "metallic nerves." Though the redwood stump may evoke wanton destruction, Rivera's goddess, despite her staid expression, assures us with her fruits that the earth remains fecund. A verdant orange tree grows before her. Three decades earlier, Frank Norris, in his novel The Octopus: A Story of California, had created an indelible image of the rapacious nature of the machine. Norris's version of the Southern Pacific Railroad was an "iron-hearted monster" with "tentacles" spread across the land. He described a map of California "sucked white and colorless," while the railroad as a "monster stood out, swollen with life-blood ... a gigantic parasite fattening upon the life-blood of an entire commonwealth." In Rivera's Allegory, the land seems all the more alive and colorful because it is crisscrossed by a technological network. The Allegory is a positive view of the hybridization of the mechanical and the organic, of culture and nature.
It is no accident that California's famous plant hybridizer has a prominent place in the Allegory. The white-haired figure kneeling to the right of the orange tree is Luther Burbank, grafting two plants together. The creator of countless new fruits-giant plums, white blackberries-Burbank was seen as a horticultural wizard, the Edison of the plant world. He described himself as "a specialist in the study of Nature for the definite purpose of producing new forms of plant life, for the better nourishment, housing, and clothing of the race." This nurseryman-utopian appealed to Rivera, who used him as a symbol of the illimitable benefits of hybridizing culture with nature. Rivera also wanted his art to participate in both the "control of nature" and the harmonizing of "man with earth and man with man." In the Allegory, the pastoral is infused with the technological; Mother Nature is enveloped in an industrial whir, a "growth machine."
But California's actual growth machine worked toward ends opposed to the artist's vision of social and ecological harmony. As defined by sociologists, a growth machine is an "apparatus of interlocking progrowth associations and governmental units" that makes "great fortunes out of place." Growth machines may use tractors, derricks, railroads, telephone lines, and the like, but they are not simply technologies. They are made up of interlocking social institutions such as newspapers, chambers of commerce, and corporations. Motivated by the promise of profit, growth machines work to transform place into things that can be bought and sold. Land becomes real estate; real estate is made scarce and desirable; prices rise. In California, the growth machine turned the land into factories of fruit.
From the 1880s through World War II, the citrus industry was the primary engine of the growth machine in Southern California. The machine manifested itself in the millions of evergreen citrus trees scintillating in the sun beneath the snow-clad San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. But it showed itself as well in the infrastructure of the built environment, in train tracks and packing houses, in worker camps and growers' mansions, and in the downtown Los Angeles office building of the California Fruit Growers Exchange (the cooperative, founded in 1893, that created the Sunkist brand). The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, a vital component of the growth machine, created an image for a promotional brochure that revealed this landscape perfectly. As William McLung observes, at the center of the scene is a flower-bearing goddess "dressed in the color of the magic fruit, the orange." The machine and the garden-intermixed landscapes in Rivera's mural-are here conveniently separated. On the left is a view of the citrus landscape, with a single orange tree peeking around the edge of the archway ruin. To the right is the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles. This bifurcated scene should be seen as a unity, for the horticultural landscape was intimately shaped by the machine, while the organic fruits of nature made the rise of the cityscape possible.
The mountains stretching across the horizon are the San Gabriels and San Bernardinos, and we are looking into Los Angeles from the south. But the artist would have been more accurate to place the groves to the east of the city. By 1929, the city had grown up over many citrus acres, but groves still stretched beneath the mountain ranges eastward all the way to Redlands and Riverside. In any event, the picture opens a vista on the heart of the citrus industry. Though oranges were grown as far north as Corning (115 miles north of Sacramento and 500 miles from the Mexican border), most of the state's oranges were grown in the Los Angeles basin. Composed of the valleys and foothills south of the San Gabriels and San Bernardinos, the basin stretches 110 miles inland and 50 miles from its northern to its southern reach. With the protective mountain wall to the north, three watersheds, the moderating effects of the Pacific ocean, and its Mediterranean climate, the region enjoys natural advantages that made it ideally suited to citrus growing. By the 1930s, some 170,000 acres were growing citrus; over seven million trees yielded almost 80 percent of California's oranges. As one geographer observed, "No other horticultural industry ... is so compactly situated and no fruit district is more intensively cultivated or more productive of wealth." This was the place that was called the Orange Empire.
One might wish to write off this Orange Empire as merely a hyperbolic title invented by boosters such as the Southern Pacific Railroad's Sunset magazine. Real empires exercise effective social and political control over far-flung territorial expanses and the people who inhabit them; they hold the kind of pervasive power political theorists call hegemony. Southern California, like the American West at large, was colonized by the United States to join the political domain Jefferson called the Empire of Liberty. But just how does this Orange Empire, an apparent imperium in imperio, fit in? Though it was something less than a "supreme and extensive political dominion" (the Oxford English Dictionary definition of an empire), the Orange Empire was more than just an industry. It established hegemony over peoples and places. It recruited and managed thousands of laborers from across the globe. It also created millions of consumers, colonizing public and private spaces across the country to convey its alluring advertisements. The Orange Empire's spheres of influence stretched over nature as well as culture. As we will see in part 1 of this book, earth, water, trees, and fruits all were transformed under its governing hands. Lacking the right to demand tribute, the Orange Empire filled its coffers by selling the fruits of the earth. Images and words worked to legitimize the regime, as if the order it created had been anointed by God or nature itself. But like all empires, it found its power contested on a number of fronts.
Beginning in the 1870s, the Orange Empire took control of a landscape boosters had described as Edenic and made improvements. The Orange Empire, its proponents claimed, augmented and democratized the fruits of Eden to create a landscape of abundance that could be enjoyed by all. Utilizing science, technology, and marketing acumen, growers covered the hills and valleys with productive trees and created a lucrative industry. Though the empire marketed oranges like a mass-produced commodity, it advertised them as pure products of nature. They were the fruits of Eden, unmediated by culture. Having been kissed by the sun, the orange was often presented to the consumer in the hands of a country maiden or earth goddess. Such iconography masked the hand of the worker. But the industry relied on a workforce-a workforce whose position at the bottom of California's social scale was reinforced by images placing its members in the kingdom of nature, like the plants and animals under Adam's command.
Such ideological sleights of hand made a public appreciation of farmworkers unlikely, but Rivera wanted to restore workers to the consciousness of the public. "I painted the fruits of the earth which enrich and nourish because of the productive labor of workers and farmers," Rivera explained. In the Stock Exchange, an Oz of economic growth, Rivera wished to draw back the curtain to reveal that all value ultimately comes from labor and the earth. He wanted to show the financiers "that what they eat and what enriches them are the products of the toil of workers and not of financial speculation-the natural beauty of California, fertilized by the vigor of workers, farmers, and scientists." But we might question how effective his mural is in conveying a "labor theory of value." Even though Rivera remembers painting "representative working men and women," we might wonder where they are. Where are the workers in the fields? Where are the women in the factories, who largely did the jobs of sorting and packing fruits? On the left there is the image of the eggheaded engineer instructing-perhaps scientifically managing-the tool caster, with his enormous hands. Down below, there are two hardrock miners. But on the right, where Rivera intended to paint "the lush agriculture, its workers and heroes," we see only a placer miner and John Marshall, the man who saw something glint in the American River and set off the Gold Rush. And there is Burbank.
Perhaps Rivera felt that the wizard of horticulture-an indefatigable worker, a man of science, and a cultivator of crops-embodied in his one person the grower, the scientist, and the worker. But some people saw him more as a plantation master, employing, as legend had it, gangs of Chinese laborers to blow pollen, by the bucketful, into the flowers with bellows. Burbank employed no such gangs, although he did have Chinese gardeners work for him, one of whom he considered excellent, for "he, too, had learned to explain to the plants what was desired." Nevertheless, Burbank was a supporter of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. On the authority of his work with plants, Burbank became a leading light in the eugenics movement. Others would graft onto this new science the ideas that helped create and maintain California's racialized division of agricultural labor. Such thinking was key to the transmogrification of workers into racial others biologically suited to stoop labor, manual labor, labor in the heat, any labor that white workers could not or would not stand for. Under this ideology, their brown or yellow hands had been provided by nature to serve its crops and be guided by the white man's brains. So what is gained by this economy of representation-having Burbank stand in for agriculture-comes at the expense of revealing the important divisions within California agriculture, as well as the ways in which those divisions were fostered by racial ideas rooting the contingencies of a cultural and economic construct in the solid ground of nature.
Excerpted from Orange Empire by Douglas Cazaux Sackman Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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|Prologue : an allegory of California||1|
|1||Manifesting the garden||20|
|2||A cornucopia of invention||53|
|3||Pulp fiction : the Sunkist campaign||84|
|4||The fruits of labor||123|
|5||"The finished products of their environment"||154|
|6||A jungle of representation : the EPIC campaign versus Sunkist||185|
|7||A record of Eden's erosion||225|
|8||"A profit cannot be taken from an orange" : Steinbeck's case for environmental justice||262|
|Epilogue : by their fruits ye shall know them||289|