Hola. My name is Gustavo Arellano, and I’m not supposed to love California.
In the past decade, as I’ve adulted my way into my late 30s, I’ve read hundreds of articles and Facebook status updates that proclaim the state as “done,” that the “best of us” decamped to the suburbs of Texas, Arizona, Colorado, Washington and all the other places where we can indulge in lower taxes, cheaper houses and gas priced at levels not seen since the days of the Gray Davis recall. By “the best of us,” of course, the naysayers almost always mean the middle class, of which I’m a member.
Our horrific fires this past winter inspired yet another wave of California-is-over dispatches, the worst by the New York Times, which declared that the days when we served as the “epitome of middle-class America on the move … are long gone.”
As usual, the Gray Lady is wrong about the Best Coast.
Set aside the accuracy question — whether it’s true that there’s no longer a place here for the comfortable-but-not-rich. I don’t like the implication that we’re the source of the state’s strength and identity, the best of what it has to offer. Because the comfortable have never actually pushed California upward; it’s always been the afflicted.
California is not Hollywood and Silicon Valley and the middle class on the move. California is my mother and her sisters picking garlic in Gilroy during the 1960s and having to drop out of junior high to pack tomatoes at the old Hunt-Wesson cannery in Fullerton.
California is my dad and his cousin sneaking into this country at the San Ysidro border crossing in 1968 in the trunk of a Chevy driven by a hippie chick from Huntington Beach and her Mexican American boyfriend.
California is the natives slaughtered by Spaniards, Mexicans and Americans alike.
California is the Chinese men who came in the 19th century to mine in what they called Gold Mountain, to build the railroad tracks that connected the United States for good, then to see their countrymen banned from entering the U.S. for decades.
California is the various ethnic groups — Japanese, Filipinos, Punjabis, Okies, Armenians and especially Latinos — who came to toil in our factories in the fields.
California is the Japanese Americans shipped off to World War II internment camps, with nary an apology from the American government until decades later. But at least they got one, unlike the Mexican Americans repatriated during the 1930s to a country they had never known.
California is all the refugees — Vietnamese, Hmong, Romanians, Central Americans, Koreans and so many more — who fled tragedy in their homeland only to find rejection here.
California is the African American who arrived during World War II from the South to work in our factories, only to get redlined into substandard housing and rough neighborhoods.
I mention these groups because they have one thing in common: They were the despised of California, the people whom the comfortable demonized and labeled a threat to our Eden. And every single one of these groups made the state better. Their struggles, their plights and — most important — their success stories allowed California to improve and show the rest of the country how to form a better place.
I’m no booster — I know California’s faults and will call them out when necessary, if only because hate mail is far more entertaining than valentines. I’ll admit that I sometimes dream about owning a Kentucky home; I once spotted a two-story, five-bedroom house in the middle of the Bluegrass State, on five acres with a river and just off the state’s Bourbon Trail, for less than $200,000. And I defend the Lone Star Republic — especially its glorious Tex-Mex food — probably more than any proud Californian ever should.
But then I remember Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath,” which I first read as a senior at Anaheim High and cherished because that story was the story of my family and so many others.
“Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out,” Mami Joad said at the end of the film version. “But we keep a’comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”
Three years ago, I was on a panel at Rancho Los Alamitos Historic Ranch and Gardens, ensconced in the ritzy Bixby Hill community of Long Beach. The subject was how much of Southern California’s past we should apply to the future. With me was Joel Kotkin, the urbanist who has appeared in these pages and elsewhere to sing the same song: California is doomed. On to other states, the best of us go.
In the audience were mostly retirees, many whose children already had moved away. And I’ll say now what I told them then: Those who leave are cowards who want all of the easy and none of the hard. Let them leave — just makes more room for those of us who love California, and we’ll keep it as great as it ever was. For all of ustedes who stay, I write.