Book Titles: From the Curious to Moxie

A year ago, last week, I received author copies of Mexican Americans with Moxie: A Transgenerational History of El Movimiento Chicano in Ventura County, California, 1945-1975. A month later, newly released paperback editions of my first oeuvre on mi tierra natal arrived, Curious Unions: Mexican American Workers and Resistance in Oxnard, California, 1898-1961. Between then and now, I have given several book lectures. Most remotely and not as many I would have wished largely due to Covid-19 restrictions… I like to think. If I am invited to talk at an institution (e.g., a college, library, or museum), I now customarily request an honorarium when it is not offered, depending on my relationship with the folk at a given venue. When I am asked how much, I respond that I am happy with an amount extended to previously invited authors of a similar caliber as myself. I know that I am no MacArthur “Genius” grant winner. But I also don’t want to be lowballed because I am a Chicano academic. Simply. It’s not about the money. It’s about respect.

For civic groups and classroom visits, I don’t require remuneration, especially if they are nearby. Years ago, a friend who led a non-profit that encouraged Chicanx youth to go to college presented me with a small box of chocolates after my presentation. Recently, after a visit with AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) students, the teacher, a 1983 classmate, gifted me a smart, yellow Oxnard High alumni t-shirt. Both gestures made me felt appreciated.

After I am introduced on showtime, I cover the scholarly provenance of both my books since Mexican Americans with Moxie is a follow up to Curious Unions. I explain how I converted my doctoral dissertation into the latter, as this is the case of the first book for many, if not most, university historians. A good number of community studies in Chicana/o history were published in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some are titled The Mexican Outsiders (Santa Paula), Labor and Community (Orange County), Making Lemonade Out Lemons (Corona), and The Devil in Silicon Valley (San Jose). Then there was Michele Serros’ fierce Chicana Falsa and Other Stories of Death and Identity in Oxnard published in 1998. Although not a work of history, when Chicana Falsa debuted, it inspired me to document my hometown’s ethnic Mexican past with a similar righteousness.

As my advisor at the Claremont Graduate University lent her imprimatur to the project, I soon discovered a 1984 Labor History journal article by sociologist Tomás Almaguer titled “Racial Domination and Class Conflict in Capitalist Agriculture: The Oxnard Sugar Beet Workers’ Strike of 1903.”[1] In addition to its interesting, not so crypto, material analysis, a major takeaway from this social history is how a rare inter-racial union of Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers and labor contractors—an even more exceptional partnership—successfully battled a fifty percent wage cut instituted by a rapacious cartel of white landowners. Later I learned that Carey McWilliams, a Colorado transplant and doyenne of California studies, titled a section of a chapter in his 1948 book, North From Mexico, “Los Betabeleros.”

As I further researched and transformed my dissertation into a book manuscript, I wrestled with its eventual title. In the process, I found that other historians of my academic cohort had adopted catchphrases from McWilliams’ Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946) to title their own books. For example, Matt García, a classmate of mine at the Claremont Graduate University, titled his first book on the ethnic Mexican community A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (2001). Four years later, Douglas Sackman completed Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden (2005). Here are two excerpts from Southern California, respectively, that not only illustrate my point but also exhibit McWilliams’ trenchant prose:

Throughout Southern California are many similar belts…This citrus belt complex of peoples, institutions, and relationships has no parallel in rural life in America…It is neither town nor country, neither rural nor urban. It is a world of its own.

Southern California, 207

Today “the orange empire” extends from Pasadena to San Bernardino through a series of evenly spaced communities, with the whole area being almost as densely populated as a city.

Southern California, 216

Hence, I decided that McWilliams’ nimble use of two specific words in the following account within North From Mexico would define my first book: “The growing of sugar beets is unique in that it represents ‘a curious union of family farms and million dollar corporations.’”[2] Therefore the title of my first book as the ethnic Mexican community of Oxnard developed many “curious unions,” in the form of collaborations with other ethnic and racial groups as well as civic and labor organizations, making them assertive historical agents.

Beyond the distinctive inter-racial formation of the betabelero Japanese Mexican Labor Association in 1903, ethnic Mexicans, for example, worked with whites and other communities of color in combatting police violence, the demand for equitable municipal services (e.g. streetlights, sanitation, and paved streets), youth programming, recognition, and the temporary cessation of the exploitation of braceros. Hence, the Curious Unions heading nicely alluded to a central premise of my book—that the ethnic Mexican community of Oxnard was central to the city’s cultural life as they were in no way outsiders in an “us against them” narrative.

As I was finishing with the copy edits and gathering of permissions for Curious Unions’ eventual 2012 release, a collection of unused newspaper articles, documents, and interview material compelled me to write a follow up book on the Chicana/o movement in Ventura County. As was the case in book one, for the second I wanted to further complicate peoples’ understanding of the Chicana/o Movement, particularly as it expressed itself outside of greater Los Angeles. After all, the ethnic Mexican communities of Fillmore, Moorpark, Oxnard, and Santa Paula had their own challenges with police brutality, protested the United States’ war in Vietnam, organized agricultural strikes, and struggled for educational justice not only in East Los Angeles but also Delano in the San Joaquin Valley.

Thus, I took advantage of the thrill my completion of book one. I studied, yet again, the edition I had of Rodolfo Acuna’s Occupied America—the encyclopedic Before the Mayflower and Custer Died for Your Sins book of historians of Chicana/o history—to refamiliarize myself with the touchstone events and unaddressed questions of el movimiento. I also examined Acuna’s 2011 book The Making of Chicana/o Studies: In the Trenches that detailed how a significant number of San Fernando Valley State College (now named California State University, Northridge) students and faculty came from or ended up living in Ventura County. One alum of Valley State was Diana Borrego Martinez who I came to know through her father, Robert Borrego, who was civically engaged primarily, but not solely, in Santa Paula for decades. Each year, Robert and Diana visited a class I co-taught with a colleague in English on the youth movements of the 1960s and ’70s.

As a result, I met with Diana at a Ventura coffeehouse in July of 2012. As we chitchatted before I pressed the record button of my mp3 device, I referenced a passage in The Making of Chicana/o Studies that detailed how United Mexican American Students (UMAS) at Valley State “consisted of about thirty students, and a dozen or so were hard core.” In the next sentence, Diana’s name was listed as one of those students. I asked her about her college experiences and what made her and her peers hard core activists. Diana looked down at the table to reflect upon the question. After a moment, she raised her head with a grin and replied, “You know, we had moxie.”

Moxie. That word. It captivated me since I first heard college basketball play-by-play announcer Dick Vitale howl it to describe frosh UCLA ballers in the 1990s: “They got moxie BABEEE!” COURAGE, DETERMINATION. AGGRESSIVE ENERGY. INITIATIVE. That was the radical style of Chicanas and Chicanos.

Consequently, as I considered the critical feedback of peer reviewers that recommended my second book manuscript for publication again with the University of Nebraska Press, I spent time thinking about its prospective title. Then, being that ethnic Mexican youth and young adults of 1960s and ’70s were carrying on a tradition of resistance of leaders in their community of the Mexican American Generation, I realized that they, too, were Mexican Americans but with a moxie all their own. In other words, where many, but certainly not all, of the Mexican American Generation advocated on behalf of their community from an aspirational politics of middle-class respectability, comportment, and acceptance (sartorially, imagine suits), the Chicana/o Generation carried themselves with a counter-culture savoir faire.

At the same time, however, this bearing, flare, mien, anger, if you will, was an adaptation of what their parents and elders role-modeled but in a more measured manner, predominantly. It was part of a historical dialectic. So much so that a good number of ethnic Mexicans, consisting of US born and naturalized citizens as well as long-term and recent immigrant Mexican nationals, embraced the Chicana/Chicano epithet. This was particularly true as working-class families with mixed citizenship and residency status demanded to be treated with dignity in terms of just wages and conditions in the fields, orchards, plants, and nurseries of Ventura County. That is our history.


[1] The article was incorporated into Alamaquer’s germinal 1994 book Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy.

[2] North From Mexico, 166.