The University of California Institute for Research in the Arts supports embedded arts research through critical exchange

John T. Caldwell: Rancho California (por favor)

John T. Caldwell (UCLA Film/TV/Digital Media) Faculty

A film depicting camps where migrant workers from Mexico live near upscale gated communities.

Artist Statement: Film and television scholars have elaborated the problematic ways in which the mass media construct and exploit racial representations on the screen and in narratives. Even in an age that some cynically deem “post-ideological,” many forms of screen-race analysis return implicitly to the troubling (or at least incomplete) notion that racism emerges from a culture industry, or a political culture of government, rather than from lived experience and local practices that circulate in and around mass media images. This paper interrogates the spatial and iconic ways that landscape in Sourthern California is used inscribe, naturalize, and exploit a racial caste system in Southern California. Even tying the race-issue to specific, explosive political initiatives-like prop 187, prop 209-that erupt and fade from the headlines, risks ignoring the long, economically productive (but apparently invisible) daily “habits” of California’s racial formation. Rather than looking at landscape as a place where racism happens, this paper shows how landscape-as enacted by zoning commissions, community associations, and corporations, and as fenced by growers-is also the means by which racism is “performed” and in some cases, celebrated. “Performativity,” far from being limited to subject sexuality and identity positions in the way that Judith Butler describes, also characterizes a contested social space that is doggedly physical rather than abstract.

This project summarizes two years of field work among migrant farmworkers-primarily indigenous Mixtecs from Oaxaca and Mayans from Guatemala–in northern San Diego county. The paper challenges two fundamental myths. The first is a mythology of commerce and public relations. California promotes its intensive agriculture as breadbasket for the nation and as a key to consumer utopia. Few realize, however, that California intensively tils and farms, not crops, but human labor. “Race-labor” is, arguably, its biggest economic product. Clips from “Rancho California (por favor)”–a work-in-progress by the author–document several of the hundreds of farm labor camps that exist in Southern California suburbs; camps that are always slightly, and conveniently, out-of-view. In some cases, scores of families live in makeshift shacks within a few hundred feet of the gated communities that employ them in Carlsbad, La Costa, and Del Mar. In other cases several hundred indigenous Oaxacan boys live and work invisibly in vast produce farms near Fallbrook and Escondido. “Rancho California (por favor)” documents the organization of these camps; their functions; and the meticulous ways that this human product is cultivated by managed deprivation on the margins. Far from the high-tech start-ups, race-labor has always been California’s most central “synergy.”

This paper also questions a second set of myths, one that is intellectual in pose. A slate of easy truisms characterize documentary theories of the past 15 years: the impossibility of representing the “other”; the fictional and constructed nature of documentary actuality; the problem of speaking with any voice other than autobiographical. These celebrated postmodern notions in documentary emanate from a post-structuralism that has spurred an even more extensive orthodoxy in media critical studies: of semiotic openness; of textual rather than political oppositionality; of reception as an unstable shifting and mulitiplicity of reading positions. And while visible evidence from the arroyos in “Rancho California (por favor)” does demonstrate how power works through public constructions, it does not leave one much confidence for grand notions of essential multiplicity and openness. These “signs” of power, that is, are also literal containers for worker bodies. These “texts” are also chain-linked barriers for families. The creative, “counter-practices” of these California campesinos, are also acknowledged parts of many local economies; seldom recognized as “particularities” of resistance. The “Performativity of Landscape” paper and the video “Rancho California (por favor)” both question ideological “distance” as fabricated by high theorists for the interpretive rituals of post-structuralism.

- Back