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University of California Press
Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles

Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles

by Gaye Theresa Johnson
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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520275287
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/15/2013
Series: American Crossroads Series , #36
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 262
Sales rank: 809,859
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Gaye Theresa Johnson is Associate Professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity

Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles

By Gaye Theresa Johnson


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95485-4


Luisa Moreno, Charlotta Bass, and the Constellations of Interethnic Working-Class Radicalism

One person can't do anything; it's only with others that things are accomplished.

—Luisa Moreno

[W]hole communities became witness to the importance of what appeared to be singular causes.

—Robin D.G. Kelley

In Los Angeles during the Second World War and the immediate postwar period, Black and Mexican-American activists, artists, and youth cultures deployed the strategy of spatial entitlement as a way of advancing democratic and egalitarian ideals. Spatial entitlement entails occupying, inhabiting, and transforming physical places, but also imagining, envisioning, and enacting discursive spaces that "make room" for new affiliations and identifications. Locked in by residential segregation and territorial policing, locked out of the jobs, schools, and amenities in neighborhoods of opportunity, and sometimes even locked up in the region's jails and prisons, Blacks and Mexicans in Los Angeles turned oppressive racial segregation into creative and celebratory congregation. They transformed ordinary residential and commercial sites into creative centers of mutuality, solidarity, and collectivity. Precisely because they experienced race as place, changing the racial realities of their society required them to challenge its spatial order as well.

Spatial entitlement encompasses sonic spaces as well. Sound travels even when people cannot. Individuals in separate spaces can savor the same sounds. The sonic realm is not merely a matter of frequency and vibrations in that it also entails the construction of social "soundscapes." Scholars of the blues, salsa, and banda music have long argued that among displaced and dispossessed populations, music serves as a home from which listeners can never be evicted. Blacks and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles were not only visible to one another in the physical spaces they shared but also audible to one another in sonic spaces that they inhabited separately as well as together. Popular music performed publicly but also consumed privately through radio and recordings produced a shared sonic space that promoted mutual identifications and prefigured subsequent political affiliations. As Michael Bull and Les Back remind us, "sound makes us rethink our relation to power."

For Blacks and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s, the physical and sonic spaces of the city were places of containment and confinement. They were not only isolated from white residential and commercial spaces but also constantly pitted against each other in desperate competition for scarce resources. Yet the tactics of spatial entitlement enabled them to perceive similarities as well as differences, to build political affiliations and alliances grounded in intercultural communication and coalescence in places shaped by struggles for spatial entitlement. I use the spatial metaphor of "constellations of struggle" to trace these activities. Stars in constellations are related to one another because taken together they reveal patterns, but they also have independent existences. The spatial and racial politics of Los Angeles in the 1940s and 1950s created constellations of struggle that tell us a great deal about how alliances and affiliations coalesce into coalitions, even though participants did not necessarily think of themselves as creators of a common cause.

Two historically important yet less-studied activists, Charlotta Bass and Luisa Moreno, deployed spatial entitlement as a mechanism for fighting racial subordination and spatial exclusion in this era. They laid claim to physical and symbolic spaces in forging networks of political and cultural resistance among Blacks and Mexican Americans. Charlotta Bass's attempt to move across space to participate in an international congress of women meeting in China and Luisa Moreno's efforts to stay in the United States by resisting deportation provide a generative point of entry into the politics of space and sound.

Early in 1949, Charlotta Bass was ecstatic. As editor of the most enduring Black newspaper in Los Angeles, she was invited to attend the Women's Asiatic Conference in Peking. "It never dawned on me," she wrote, "that I would ever have the opportunity even to consider a visit to that part of the world." The invitation reflected the international attention she had garnered after nearly three decades of social justice work among the multiracial members of the working class in Los Angeles. From the time she began editing the California Eagle (often called just "the Eagle") in 1912, Bass's writings and activism transformed the political import of Black Los Angeles to both local communities of color and international organizations. Well known for her public campaigns against racially restrictive covenants in housing and persistent efforts on behalf of Black community development and empowerment, Bass also championed the rights and dignity of Mexican Americans. She served as a member of the sponsoring commission for the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, which was organized on behalf of a group of young Mexican Americans falsely accused of murder, and she campaigned forcefully against the racial brutalities exacted upon Mexican American zoot suiters during the summer of 1943. Congress of Industrial Organizations activist Alice McGrath recalled that even before the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión took up the cause, the California Eagle was "one of the first papers to recognize and publicize the racist and discriminatory nature of that case."

When Bass arrived at the airport for her trip to China, she was detained. In an organized effort, officials delayed the processing of her paperwork for so long that she missed her flight.

"After a night's wrestle with sleep, I awoke the next morning ... with a renewed determination to make the California Eagle a bigger and better newspaper ... and as I settled down to the production of the next issue ... I whispered to it, 'I can't go to China, but you can. And you will tell the people how disappointed I was.'"

Bass's resolve to enable her newspaper to travel where she could not—to use discursive space as a response to the constraints placed on her movement inside physical space—constituted an exercise in spatial entitlement. Her decision to disperse the disappointing news of repression took its place in a long tradition among aggrieved community members who have used the press to expose injustice. For years she had been articulating the connection between domestic racism and international imperialism and also among the seemingly particular grievances of besieged communities. Six years earlier, at the time of the violence of the Zoot Suit Riots, Bass, like many of her contemporaries, had come to believe that those opposed to equality in America "shared ideals, goals, and tactics with enemies abroad." To miss an opportunity to share these insights with a pan-Asian audience was a loss that held singular significance for Bass. She had something to say about interethnic identification and affiliation, and it was an expression honed by sustained, radical engagement with working-class struggle. Halted by city officials, Bass was forced to articulate from a liminal space between the enduring mobility of her words (via the California Eagle) and the sudden imposition of immobility on her body (in her physical detention).

In another context, geographer David Harvey has argued that the politics of space lie in the contradiction between mobility and immobility. Following him, I argue that it is in this space between mobility and containment that many Black and Brown people in Los Angeles struggled to preserve their neighborhoods, to enjoy the freedom to congregate, and to create the mutual spaces of political and cultural expression that inspire collective success.

At nearly the same moment, Luisa Moreno, one of the most visible Latina labor and civil rights activists in the United States from the 1930s to 1950, was facing deportation for her own interethnic activism that she had begun two decades previously. Moreno had organized Latino, Black, and Italian cigar rollers in Florida, cannery workers in California, migrant workers in the Rio Grande Valley, and pecan-shellers in San Antonio. In her work from 1935 to 1947 in Los Angeles, she had encouraged cross-plant interethnic alliances and women's leadership inside several area food-processing firms. Rather than emphasize the primacy of the individual, Moreno distinguished herself as an educator, agitator, and mobilizer by focusing on the relationship between individuals and their communities.

In 1950, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was thirteen years old, and averaged five—often highly publicized—trials per year in California. Its focus on un-American and subversive activities was based on the assumption that the Communist Party had infiltrated social programs such as those started by the New Deal and also influenced the strategies and intentions of social justice workers and organizations. The HUAC perceived the particular accumulation and deployment of Moreno's experience, coupled with her sustained commitment to collective action among Black, Brown, and working-class white women, as sufficient justification for her deportation that year. Moreno's sentiment on the question of her eviction from the United States was that the HUAC could "talk about deporting me ... but they can never deport the people that I've worked with and with whom things were accomplished for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of workers—things that can never be destroyed." Like Bass, Moreno focused her activism on challenges deployed in what often appear to be the interests of singular racial groups, but both women kept a steady emphasis upon the common oppressions suffered by Mexican-American, Black, and Jewish communities in Los Angeles and later San Diego. This sensitivity to interethnic unity stemmed from more than abstract ideals: it emerged from the spaces that members of these groups shared at work places, in neighborhoods, on public transit vehicles, and in their leisure time pursuits in recreational, artistic, and cultural venues.

Studying these women as part of the same frame of interracial antiracist struggle in Los Angeles reveals a critical moment not visible when we study them separately. The rhetorical strategies of interethnic affiliation and identification created by and around these women's mutual endeavors significantly shaped the narrative of the Black–Brown political alliance and its cultural corollaries for years to come. Bass and Moreno were principal architects of midcentury cross-racial politics. That these women of color were likely the most influential local activists in these LA communities at this time is a fact that cannot be overestimated. They made critical interventions against structures of racism, imperialism, and spatial oppression over several decades, and both were among the most visible participants in the infrapolitics that informed and shaped a common urban antiracist culture of struggle within the Black and Brown communities of Los Angeles.

Even without material evidence of their interactions, it strains common sense to assume that Bass and Moreno never met. In 1943, the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (SLDC) was formed in Los Angeles by an interracial, intergenerational—and at times, trans-national—coalition of labor leaders, journalists, and community activists in defense of Mexican youths falsely convicted of murder. Both women were active on the SLDC and in its relevant communities at the same time. Undoubtedly, each was aware of the other's work to generate new political sensibilities and identities among the women and men in their respective communities. Both engaged in affirmative declarations of the rights of minority communities in order to convey their disappointment in the difference between the rhetoric of American universality and the realities of home-front inequality.

This chapter argues that Bass and Moreno, in the same moment and city, envisioned and enacted a plural, egalitarian, democratic, and intercultural "America," in concert with artists, intellectuals, and activists and that this vision and practice deployed spatial and cultural politics that have tended to be overlooked or underestimated in the historiography of this period and these struggles. To understand their significance in this context, it is helpful to consider this story within my theoretical framework of a constellation of struggle, which delineates the array of activism, histories, and identities that each woman symbolically brought to her activity with the SLDC. "Constellations" suggest mobility, as well as the ability of these activists to re-form around different nuclei of causes and struggle. The constellations of struggle that coalesced around the SLDC were foregrounded by the radical critiques raised by Black and Brown working-class communities in Los Angeles. Civil rights struggles in and for both communities had long made their mark on the national landscape of civil rights struggles and created a genealogy of empowerment critical for the articulation of social membership in the post-WWII era. A constellation of struggle is likewise a feminist intervention in the androcentric characterization of this time as the era of the GI generation. Looking at constellations enables us to take seriously the intersection between women's embodied social identities and the larger historical developments of the moment.

The particular timing of the SLDC politics precipitated an intensification of persecution against Bass and Moreno by government and city officials. By the end of the decade, The California Eagle would no longer be in Bass's hands and Moreno would be deported. For these reasons and many more, the coalitional politics of the SLDC mark an important historical moment. And though this interracial mobilization arose out of the violence of the Sleepy Lagoon case, its consequences created a far more important legacy: new language about and strategies for the assertion of humanity and social entitlement. The particular alliance politics practiced by Bass and Moreno set a crucial precedent for the committee's strategic interracial mobilization and for subsequent spatial and sonic politics in Los Angeles.


The full import of the constellations of struggle brought by each activist to the SLDC is best understood by considering their respective histories of activism and community sensibilities, including the community activism that engendered and resulted from their work.

Moreno was born into an elite Guatemalan family and traveled as a teenager to Mexico City, where she worked as a journalist and pursued her talents as a poet. Vicki Ruiz conjectures that it may have been Moreno's "sense of adventure and certainly ... a streak of rebelliousness" that may have underpinned her early rejection of her family's privilege. In any case, Moreno's renunciation of her family's wealth "permanently strain[ed] her relationship with her parents and siblings...." After a few years in Mexico's artistic circles, she migrated to New York with her husband in 1928 and became a mother the same year. Her experience as a garment worker living in Spanish Harlem provided the impetus for her political awakening: In 1930, Moreno joined the Communist Party. Her activism in Spanish Harlem's Centro Obrero de Habla Española, a leftist community coalition, led her to mobilize her peers on the shop floor into a small-scale garment workers' union called "La Liga de Costureras." In 1935, she accepted a job organizing Latino, African-American, and Italian cigar rollers in California as an American Federation of Labor (AFL) organizer. In 1938, after resigning from the AFL to join its newly established rival, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), she joined the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). That year, Moreno also helped organize El Congreso del Pueblos que Hablan Española (Congress of Spanish-speaking people), held in April of 1939. It was the first national civil rights assembly for Latinos in the United States; it attracted over a thousand delegates representing over 120 organizations. El Congreso addressed employment, housing, education, health, and immigrant rights; they fought for workers' and women's rights while advocating for Latino studies curricula and bilingual education. This event was particularly extraordinary, since Moreno and other congress leaders rejected the assimilationist strategies proposed by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC); instead, they insisted that whites accept blame for the racial and ethnic stratification that had evolved in the Southwest.


Excerpted from Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity by Gaye Theresa Johnson. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Future Has A Past
Chapter 1
Luisa Moreno, Charlotta Bass, and the Constellations of
Interethnic Working-Class Radicalism
Chapter 2
Spatial Entitlement: Race, Displacement, and Sonic Reclamation in Post-war Los Angeles
Chapter 3
Cold Wars and Counter WAR(s): Coalitional Politics in an Age of Violence
Chapter 4
“Teeth Gritting Harmony”: Punk, Hip Hop, and Sonic Spatial Politics
Chapter 5
Space, Sound, and Shared Struggles
The Future Has a Past

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