History Matters: Hence, Colonialists’ Futile Attempts to Erase It

When the Spanish conquered central Mexico in 1521, the gold-loco conquistadores burned the codices of the Aztecs and destroyed their temples to reimagine a new cultural algorithm of colonial domination. This is what the Aztecs had done before them. Hence, in CSU Channel Islands’ infancy, the administration obsessed over history’s inherent contention. Fact versus fantasy; or at least its desired public relations revision of it. First and foremost, the people charged with the university’s brand negated the official acknowledgment of the site being a mental institution before its transformation to one of academe. Functionaries admonished staff and faculty who mentioned, verbally or in writing, our campus’ psychiatric origins.

The university was equally careful not to offend the sensitivities of Ventura County’s landed gentry, i.e., the satraps of agribusiness and real estate… often the same people. Especially, as the university dreamed, perhaps, that an imaginary would grow student enrollments; then there was the philanthropy of deep-pocket donors that it desired not to jeopardize after state funding for the CSU shriveled over time owed to a succession of austerity, neoliberal budget cuts to public education and mental health initiated by Governor Ronald Reagan.  

Indeed, CSU Channel Islands’ historical book burning, if you will, occurred with the publication of its inaugural From Dream To Reality 2002-2003 Catalog. The document’s first printing presented, in a section titled “Campus History,” a nimble survey of the university’s provenance as a mental hospital within a landscape of capitalist agriculture where the maximization of profits reigned supreme above all other considerations—such as the provision of living wages so the children of farmworkers would not have to work in the fields and orchards with their penurious parents to supplement the household income, standard residences with indoor plumbing, and humane working conditions of sanitation. The first printing of the catalog also paid homage to the Chumash people as we are guests to their ancestral lands. Anglo settlers then dispossessed Mexican ranchers, labeled Californios (it is difficult for many, even some Hispanics themselves, to utter or write the “M” word)by a set of economic-legal stratagems. This was not explicitly written in the laconic narrative, but it was deftly finessed; students of our state’s past will notice this interpretation being implied.  

So as the first printing of CSUCI’s inaugural catalog was released the administration swiftly ordered the confiscation of all copies from the counters, offices, and shelves of distribution. Stumped, many in the campus community who obtained their copies pondered why the catalog was methodically yanked. I was informed that the administration feared the monetary backlash of agribusiness as the “Campus History” section detailed, perhaps, too honestly the realities of CSUCI’s past, specifically how it recognized agricultural production in Ventura County grounded in the exploitation of Mexican laborers, like my rebellious, migrant grandfather Frank V. Barajas on my dad’s side, and my pawky abuelita, Doña Rita Piñon Medrano, on my mom’s, and their brood. The story also referenced Asians (Chinese, Filipino, and Japanese) and white Midwestern migrant families being exploited by the dictators of agriculture.  

The “Campus History” section also used language that revealed that the anonymous author, who I do not know, held a training in materialist analysis: captains of agribusinesslaborerspowerstruggle [a big indicator of Marxist analysis], corporateexploitation, unionizing, and low wages. (I would have used starvation wages.) Academics unacquainted with material analysis do not use, for the most part, this kind of framing with such consistency.  

Hence, language, like history, matters. For example, when the university was going to inaugurate the Hank Lacayo Institute for Workforce and Community Studies back in 2010, the university beforehand replaced the word “Labor” with “Workforce” as it did not want to offend the agricultural grower class, corporate employers, and Republican elected officials of our service area unfriendly to organized labor. The UCLA Labor Center, embattled by then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005, was the political contretemps to avoid at CSUCI.  

So there are people like me who cherish the first printing copies of CSU Channel Islands’ inaugural catalog in their possession as well as the second gold-sealed reprint edition with the “Campus History” section expunged, purged, elided, erased, cut out…. Those pages were left blank.  

In closing, I believe that the catalog section in question was also censored because it presented a nuanced history of our campus once being Camarillo State Hospital up to 1997. But an analysis of this language is out my wheelhouse. I will leave this up to others with such expertise to critique the evaporated codex excerpts, if you will, from the second printing below and attached file.  

  • The campus site represents a significant and interesting slice of Southern California history. Contained here are stories of Chumash peoples, Californio ranchos and American ranchers, captains of agribusiness and laborers, those associated with Camarillo State Hospital, politicians of local, state, and national importance, and finally, those who will continue to build a university based in Ventura County. In their stories we find vision, power, and struggle 
  • It became increasingly difficult for individuals to retain ownership of such large parcels of land in the years spanning the late 1850s to the 1930s as California became a national model for corporate farming. Adolfo Camarillo bought the 10,000 acre Rancho Calleguas in 1857 which was subsequently divided.  
  • Captains of Agribusiness and Laborers (paragraph subtitle) 

    As ranching declined in California, agribusiness in the Santa Clara River Valley and the Oxnard Plain became as important as the oil developed in Ventura after 1860. Farmers grew barley and grains, lima beans, lemons, sugar beets, and strawberries….  
  • Ventura County agribusiness became extremely profitable because of easily exploited and poorly paid immigrant workers, especially those from Japan, from the midwest in the 1930s, and from Mexico throughout the rest of the twentieth-century. Though California’s agribusiness has changed substantially in the twentieth-century, and despite farmworker success in unionizing, field workers still are immigrants performing difficult labor for low wages. Agriculture remains significant to the campus site, and is evident in the surrounding fields of crops and orchards (and beekeeping). This land, as in other California counties, is one of mixed and often contrary economies–both agricultural and residential, with encroaching suburban sprawl.  
  • Camarillo State Hospital first opened at the height of institutional psychiatric care, and it expanded with newer ideas of medical treatments. At the opening of the RT building, State Superintendent Dr. Frank F. Tallman claimed the new treatment center “gives us the opportunity to offer them [patients] the first in psychiatric medicine. . . . Every phase of the modern hospital is at our fingertips.” In other words, this “unit is a splendid example of the stream-lined advancement of psychiatric treatment at its best.” Father Francis Koene gave the benediction: “This Camarillo State Hospital may be for the sick a welcome oasis in the parched desert of mental distress, fatigue and hopelessness; a lymphid fountain with beaded bubbles breaking o’er the brim, to bring refreshing waters to the arid tired mind, torn and tortured and taut with the stress and strain and strife of modern living.”  
  • Such change and continued reform up through the seventies did not by any means make Camarillo a perfect place; yet it is safe to say hope and belief in the possibilities for change must have touched the lives of many. CSH was faced with another period of public exposé with a grand jury investigation of suspicious deaths in 1976. As in the earlier decade, many met this challenge with new ideas and programs. CSH developed training programs for health care professionals and new methods of improved care in a context of a rapidly declining patient population, which in itself must have allowed staff to better do their jobs. However, the lack of financial commitment on the part of State directors, now focused more on community based treatments, resulted in hospital closures. Camarillo State Hospital closed in 1997.  
  •  Campus History 

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