Based on Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel, the film Giant depicted mid-twentieth century life and society in Texas four years later. Although much of the Lone Star state’s cultural landscape applied to the rest of the nation, this entailed the quotidian oppression of ethnic Mexicans and Blacks, a bespoke racial regionalism, and thorny socio-economic transformation draped in a normalized veil of White Supremacy. A diner slugfest between freshly woke cattle baron Jordan “Bick” Benedict, (played by Rock Hudson) and the bigoted proprietor who would not serve Bick’s ethnic Mexican daughter-in-law Juana (Elsa Cardenas), and his mixed-race grandchildren functioned as the tale’s climax. Racial capitalism won the pleito, by the way. But the significance of the scene was not in the win or loss but in the fight itself.
The movie’s central take was the South’s racial capitalism as Anglos monopolized land, cattle, oil, and racialized labor. For example, in Bick’s Texas ethnic Mexican ranch hands of Reata obsequiously attended to the crows of Whites like Bick’s sister, Luz Benedict, who enjoyed cattle rustling over making love. And in Virginia—the home state of Leslie Benedict, Bick’s wife (Elizabeth Taylor)—well-mannered Black servants answered the commands of plantation bosses from a more genteel tradition.
The opportunity for upward mobility in this caste system existed only for working-class whites of ambiguous lineage. The hardscrabble alcoholic Jett Rink (James Dean) mythically symbolized this trope. Nonetheless, in both the film and novel, no hint of resistance exists to the house of White supremacy on the part of Brown and Black agents. Vexingly, in the film only Whites could demand social justice—and only when racism demeaned new Brown family members, wearily accepted, such as Juana and her children.
The inhumanity of White supremacy in housing, healthcare, public facilities, and work (i.e., structural racism) conveyed in Giant is also wrenchingly detailed in Isabel Wilkerson’s magisterial Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010). Through the harrowing migrant family stories of Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who relocated from Chickasaw County, Mississippi eventually to Chicago; Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster from Monroe, Louisiana to Los Angeles; and George Watson Starling from Eustis, Florida to Harlem, Wilkerson narrates an in-your-face-racism that humiliated, subordinated, and disciplined southern refugees in multifaceted ways. Any Black person who contravened racist mores risked White public rituals of lynching that entailed gang rapes and beatings, torture (e.g., victims chained to cars and dragged through streets by the genitals), bodily mutilations, people burned alive, and hangings in town squares while White families entertained themselves in their Sunday’s best. Such acts of collective terrorism were not limited to the South, as they took also place in the Midwest, North, and West against families who attempted to reside in working-class neighborhoods such as the Chicago suburb of Cicero.
The dialectic of migration detailed by Wilkerson rhymed similarly with those of ethnic Mexicans from different parts of the US and Mexico. For example, the terrorist violence of outfits such as the Texas Rangers and Ku Klux Klan also compelled the migration of Black and Brown refugees to el calor de otro sols. Indeed, Wilkerson stated:
The people of the Great Migration had farther to climb because they started off at the lowest rung wherever they went. They incited greater fear and resentment in part because there was no ocean between them and the North…Thus, blacks confronted hostilities more severe than most any other group (except perhaps Mexicans, who could also cross over by land)….
Then there was the economic opportunity in the shipyards, auto plants, and meatpacking factories of places like Oakland, Detroit, and Chicago that recruited Black and Brown migrants before the Second World War. And once at a terminal point of their chain migration from one city and town to another over time, the transplanted set up socially supportive and protective migrant clubs and mutualistas, as did Whites from places such as Iowa, and held culturally restorative reunions.
I often reflect upon the Great Migration stories, Brown and Black, of my community while coming of age in Ventura County. Growing up I eavesdropped and listened to the accounts of my paternal and maternal great-grandparents and grandparents. On my mom’s side, my Abuelita guided her four young daughters from Chihuahua, Mexico as a single mother. My dad’s father migrated earlier in the century from Michoacan; from McAllen, Texas his mother’s family traveled back and forth from Chihuahua, Kansas, and Texas before settling in Rancho Sespe.
I also often ponder the migrant, working-class narratives of families that lived in my Bartolo Square neighborhood of south Oxnard composed of a fairly balanced mix of ethnic Mexicans, Filipinos, Japanese, Blacks, and Whites. I periodically chuckle to myself when I remember my Black schoolmate, Steve, who lived down the street when he boasted one day on the playground that his family originated from Paris. “Wow,” I incredulously said to myself, “Steve’s family is from France?” After a brief pause, Steve clarified his assertion with a smile, “We’re from Paris, Texas!” Other Black families in my Bartolo Square neighborhood in south Oxnard, like Curtis’s, came from Mississippi and other states of the South. We all got along—for the most part. Then there was the story of my paternal grandmother, Josephine, who shared with me how a Black farmer in McAllen, Texas had taught my great-grandfather, Santos Hernandez, how to read. Wow. Heavy.
From these accounts, I feel a certain connection to Texas and its people.
After my return to Ventura County in 2001 to begin my teaching career at California State University Channel Islands, I interviewed my first-grade teacher, Ms. Lillie Watkins, after some thirty years since being her student, for my first book Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898-1961. In this conversation, I learned that she was originally from Indiana. Upon facing graduation from Ball State University in the late 1950s, Ms. Watkin’s sister was recruited to work at the Oxnard Elementary School District (OESD). Following her sister’s lead, Ms. Watkins accepted a position to teach first grade in the OESD. When Ms. Watkins and her husband arrived in Ventura County they searched for an apartment. And like many Black and Brown migrants in search of the warmth of different suns, they experienced how units open during a phone conversation suddenly became rented once they arrived to view them.
Discouraged and angry, Ms. Watkins decided to return to the Midwest with her husband but was convinced to stay when supportive White colleagues helped find them a home. But not all co-workers were so kind, as she discussed how one White teacher uttered the n-word under her breath in 1965 as she walked past her in the hallway. Oxnard not being the South, Ms. Watkins challenged this racist educator, who denied saying anything.
As I presently read Wilkerson’s book, I wish I would have asked Ms. Watkins if her parents’ family migrated to Indiana from the South. I also would have asked what stories her parents shared with her and her siblings as they grew. Nonetheless, I am privileged to have had Ms. Watkins as one of my early teachers. As a Black educator, she not only taught me, patiently, how to read but also complicated my understanding of race in Ventura; along with other Black teachers named Bloodworth, Calhoun, Datcher, Thrasher, Wilson, and White—as well as classmates with similar last names—I learned to value all people as people while recognizing, not denying, their race and cultural heritage. This is not to say that racial tensions did not manifest in Ventura County. But they were nowhere near the White-heat violence documented in places such as New York, Chicago, and many parts of the South… as far as I know at this moment.
Frank P. Barajas is a professor of United States history at California State University Channel Islands. He obtained a bachelor’s and Master’s degree in History at California State University, Fresno. And while teaching at Cypress College as a tenure-track professor, he earned his doctorate from the Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Barajas specializes in the history of Southern California. He has published peer-reviewed essays on agricultural labor in Ventura County, the Sleepy Lagoon Trial, Oxnard schools, and the 2004 implementation of a civil gang injunction in the City of Oxnard. In 2012 the University of Nebraska Press released his book titled Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898-1961. And this past Summer Nebraska published his follow-up, Mexican Americans with Moxie: A Transgenerational History of El Moviemiento Chicano in Ventura County, California, 1945-1975.