SUMMER INSTITUTE FOR COMMUNITY ENGAGED SCHOLARSHIP

Shiraz Noorani, Graduate Student Researcher
Center for the Humanities, UC Merced

For the second year in a row, a two-day Summer Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship was hosted by the University of California Merced, with the support of the Center for the Humanities and with funding from the Henry Luce Foundation. The aim of both the Summer Institute and ongoing Luce funding is to develop an innovative graduate education initiative that fosters humanities research through community engagement. The program supports summer fellowships that allow graduate students to work in teams led by faculty with community partners.

Summer Institute for Community Engaged Scholarship Participants

Participating in this summer’s Institute were two teams of graduate students led by UC Merced professors. The team led by Yehuda Sharim is titled, “Talking Freedom: How State and For-Profit Prisons Impact Central Valley Communities,” and involves a full feature film and collaborative research project reflecting on facets of everyday life in Coalinga, Merced, and McFarland, California.  The other team led by Dalia Magaña is working on a project with Healthy House related to breast cancer narratives. Healthy House is a cultural and linguistic non-profit organization with a mission to promote the well-being and health of all people in a multi-ethnic community with a focus on Merced County. Regarding the impact of the Institute, Dalia said, “Our team…appreciated the space the institute provided to learn together and interact with each other. During our interactions, we shared personal stories about each other that gave us a glimpse of what drives our commitment to community-engaged scholarship.”

Yehuda Sharim’s team

The opening remarks for the program were delivered by Robin Delugan, associate professor, and Anne Zanzucchi, Associate Dean for Student Services and Academics in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities, and Arts, who are both leading the overarching Luce grant project over the coming years, which supports different faculty and graduate student teams each year. In their remarks, they mentioned the activities and achievements of the project since it started adding that each year’s summer institute creates training opportunities, space for teams, and networking across fields and communities. Workshops on the first day included:  “Community Engaged Scholarship Foundations,” “Telling Your Story,” and “Beyond The Archives.” The second day featured the remarks by Sean Buffington, Vice President at the Henry Luce Foundation. He talked about the beginning of UC Merced’s cooperation with the Luce Foundation and the Foundation’s commitment to continue working with UC Merced. The second day of the program featured workshops on Informed Consent and the Ethics of Community Research. 

In conclusion, during the Summer Institute, a total of six workshops were held for two teams of graduate students, faculty, and a community partner. Ekta Kandhway, a doctoral student in Interdisciplinary Humanities, shared her experience participating in the Summer Institute: “The workshops helped me situate our Luce summer project within the larger vision of UC Merced that is aspiring to become an R1 university through its special focus on community engaged scholarship.”  

Dalia Magaña and Healthy House team

Graphic History: COVID-19, Speculative Fiction, and Illustrating the Archive

By Ivan Gonzalez-Soto, Doctoral Student, UC Merced

Prior to COVID-19, I used critical race and ethnic studies, history, and environmental studies to frame my research on water, racialized labor, and agrarian capitalism in the 20th-century US west. Recently, I’ve added another lens through which to understand my research questions: the graphic novel. Allow me to illustrate.

During the Spring 2020 semester, I enrolled in a graduate seminar titled “Race, State, and Power” and met once a week with peers to discuss books on global insurgencies, racial capitalism, and the nation state. Unbeknownst to me then, our course readings—which paired critical history with speculative fiction—would set two creative projects in motion which helped me cope with the state of the world while pushing the limits of what I thought reflected a good/traditional dissertation project.

Over the past months, I’ve used art and speculative fiction to cope with declension narratives and doom and gloom statistics that envelope the present moment. Fiction by Octavia E. Butler, Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi, and Fernando Flores have shown me how to interpret the past, present, and future in ways I had never imagined. Their stories, albeit odd, offered respite when I needed it most. Most importantly, their novels helped me hang on to a future in which things eventually do get better. I imagined I could be, as the non-profit online magazine Grist eloquently writes, “working toward a planet that doesn’t burn, a future that doesn’t suck.” 

The closure of archives during the pandemic resulted in unexpected changes that challenged me to brainstorm other research methods for my work. All the while, I searched for opportunities to broaden the scope of my work through creative perspectives. This has manifested as a creative outlet wherein I illustrate scenes from the archive. Examples, like my illustrations below, merged mid-twentieth century black and white archival photographs in the public domain with colorful renditions that brought the archive to life. The sample illustrations below are creative drafts in which I incorporated storyboards, dialogue, and historical references to emphasize key elements in the histories I’m exploring for my dissertation. 

I will still write my dissertation in the academic prose expected of doctoral research. However, the graphic novel component I’ve envisioned has the potential to reach an entirely new audience that may not have an interest in reading standard, double-spaced, 12-point, Times New Roman, linear text. Together, the traditional dissertation and artistic renditions offer an innovative form of storytelling. 

In line with the creative aspect of this work, I’m using graphic history to share my work while imagining alternatives for a better future through speculative fiction. That is, I’m blending history with imaginative fiction to think of how problems of the past can be addressed and abolished in the future. In this way, I am able to explain past issues while imagining alternative futures in which things get better. Themes such as labor exploitation in agricultural fields, environmental degradation due to toxic pesticides, and the expansion of prisons and militarized border walls can be written out in the speculative futures I’m writing about. This helps me find hope through abolitionist alternatives to get to the world I want to be a part of. And while it may seem idealist, the pandemic has reminded me that I must imagine alternatives with a better future to stay hopeful.

By Ivan, spring 2021. Digital drawing over an online Library of Congress photograph.

Unlike the archival photographs that captured Imperial Valley farmworkers as nameless and faceless subjects (see original photograph here), my illustrations help breathe new life to the workers’ struggle by centering their lives in local history. This approach speaks against dominant discourse and regional histories which alienate and render workers invisible to the land. This erasure is a trend in mainstream history, but I believe the workers’ stories in the Imperial Valley are out there—even if their stories aren’t necessarily preserved in the traditional archive. As a creative project, I’m formulating the past through speculative historical fiction to center the agency of Imperial Valley’s working class alongside a brighter future. Indeed, the workers have a story to tell; they’re there—even though the archive suggests otherwise.

Other illustrations, like the special collections box below, have the potential to communicate the research behind my work. While I couldn’t take my readers to the archive reading rooms, I can illustrate what and how I saw the archive in ways that a footnote simply could not. There’s hope in the dissertation-research-turned-graphic-novel approach because it helps the public visualize the past to shape a better and more just future. In the process, the speculative approaches in this work might help speak more just futures into existence.

By Ivan, fall 2020. Digital drawing over personal photograph taken at UCLA archives in 2019.

Because many archives closed temporarily or were shuttered completely, I was forced to adapt my research into something more accessible. And to cope with declension narratives that enveloped this last year, I’ve turned to art and speculative fiction to make sense of my research through new angles. I’ve since collaborated on a reader-friendly environmental justice comic book on the right to clean drinking water based on a fictional town in California’s Central Valley. It explores my research through fictional characters in ways that bar graphs, charts, and conference presentations could not. That little comic book is now a resource for rural communities of color in the San Joaquin Valley and it’s publicly available through eScholarship.   Projects like these are the result of finding ways to cope with the pandemic while getting creative in the process, and I hope to connect with others out there interested in similar work.

By Ivan, 2020. Early draft of a storyline I was crafting for a comic book based on a segment of my research.
By Ivan. Graphic rendition of my dissertation: “Water is King—Here is its Kingdom: Race, Labor, and the Environment in the Making of California’s Imperial Valley, 1900-2000.”
By Ivan. Graphic rendition of my dissertation: “Water is King—Here is its Kingdom: Race, Labor, and the Environment in the Making of California’s Imperial Valley, 1900-2000.”



Plan B: Recruiting Latino Immigrants for a Qualitative Study… From Home

by Fabiola Perez-Lua, Public Health Doctoral Student, UC Merced

I joined the COVID-19 and Latino Immigrants in Rural California (CLIMA) Study in the summer of 2020 and I was ready to leverage my background as a young, Latina student, born and raised in the Central Valley, to recruit Latino immigrants living in Tulare and Merced Counties for this important study. I had been away from the community for seven years, but people knew me, and I knew where to go to find them. I imagined myself posting CLIMA Study flyers in laundromats as children ran around behind me, or being greeted by the sweet smell of pan as I entered the panadería with a recruitment flyer for the señora in the apron behind the glass counter that housed colorful arrays of pan dulce. I made lists of the places I would go – Orosi, Lindsey, Exeter, Selma – the places where I had spent my weekends as a teenager working with my dad, sipping a warm cup of coffee, and conversing with the vendor next door. My dad, excited to have me back in town, would offer to visit farmworker friends and tell them about our study. Nostalgia and excitement filled me as I imagined the conversations in my head:

“Haven’t seen you around?”

“Just moved back… working on this study…”

Solo dame el número para llamar, mija. Nosotros te ayudamos con tus entrevistas...” (“Just give me the number to call, sweetheart. We will help you with your interviews…”)

Then, Governor Newsom announced the stay-at-home order. Flea markets closed. Grocery stores flooded with panicked people. Breaking news headlined every channel on TV. Schools closed, one after another, like falling dominos. In-person contact suddenly became a near-death experience.

“Novel virus!”

“Six feet apart!”

“Wear a mask!”

“Work from home if you can!”

Work from home. Suddenly I had to work from my small apartment in Merced, where the only social interaction I was allowed to participate in was through a screen. It was in this virtual space where our CLIMA research team began to design a “Plan B Recruitment Plan.” It was a recruitment plan that did not involve posting flyers in laundromats, going to the panadería to advertise the study, stopping by vineyards, or recruiting old vendor-friends at the flea market. Plan B was outlined as follows:

  • Step 1: Identify local and national organizations that serve your study population

Google search local and national immigrant-serving organizations. Create an Excel sheet that lists the names and information of these immigrant-serving organizations and any others you know of or have worked with in the past.

  • Step 2: Contact organizations

Decorate your excel sheets with bright colors that keep track of who needs to be contacted (red), who has been contacted but hasn’t responded (yellow), and who has provided numbers of individuals who are interested in becoming participants (green). Make a total of three attempts to reach each organization: the first attempt should introduce the study and ask for their assistance with the recruitment process. The two follow-up emails (or calls) should be sent a few days apart as reminders. Don’t worry if organizations don’t get back to you – it’s a pandemic!

  • Step 3: Contact individuals

Compile a second excel sheet that includes the names and numbers of individuals who are referred to you by the organizations who are assisting with the remote recruitment process. Decorate this sheet with colors indicating who needs to be contacted (red), who has been contacted but hasn’t responded (yellow), and who is scheduled for an interview (green).

  • Step 4: Snowball sampling

Before the interview ends, ask the participant to refer you to other individuals they may know who may also be interested in participating in the study. They may distribute your name and number to friends and family.

The plan was simple enough. But the execution? That was a whole different story. Immigrant-serving organizations were busy functioning above capacity to support their communities during these difficult times. Reaching Latino immigrants by phone was challenging; folks worked long hours, many were taking care of children at home, and phone numbers changed often. On top of that, voicemails weren’t always set up and calls dropped in the middle of conversations. These were just a few of the issues we were experiencing with “remote recruitment.” I so badly wanted to drive down to Lindsay and stand outside of the Mercado Sol del Valle and talk to people. I wanted them to see my face, to trust that I was a young student, an aspiring researcher, born-and-raised in the community and interested in supporting Latino immigrant health. But instead, I was a “researcher at the university who will give you a call with information about the study.”

So, how did we adapt? With patience, outreach, and trust. We made peace with the fact that the recruitment process was going to be slower than expected. Rather than occupy our minds with worries about the project timeline, we used the time to reach out to community leaders in our region and develop trusting relationships. These new relationships led to the creation of a Community Advisory Board that brought diverse perspectives about the various issues that faced immigrants in the community as we conducted interviews and gathered qualitative data. Together, we produced a policy brief with our findings and disseminated it to a far wider audience than we could have reached alone. The need to adapt to a new research environment under COVID-19 highlighted the importance of community engagement and collaborative approaches to research that acknowledge and employ the expertise of community leaders. We are continuing to stay connected with, and expand, our new network of advocates to support Latino immigrant health. While it was unfortunate that my first year as a graduate student researcher experience did not unfold as I had imagined it, I have learned to adapt quickly, build community in the face of disaster, and reach rural Latino immigrants in innovative ways that will only enhance my ability to conduct Latino immigrant health research in the future.

Ripe for Change: Adaptation, Care, and Environmental Studies

By Shiloh Green Soto, Interdisciplinary Humanities Graduate Student at UC Merced                                                 

I’ve experienced a deep bout of imposter syndrome since the first day of graduate school, and this largely has to do with the fact that I’m a first-generation college student from a working-class family attempting to exist in the academy’s definitively not-first-generation, affluent environment. Unlike many in the academy, I don’t have relatives to teach me the etiquette for how to speak or do academe, so I’ve largely relied on generous intel from other working-class graduate students who have paved the way. Yet, my anxiety about being found out as a fraud led me to overcompensate in my efforts to be the graduate student I thought I was expected to be. I applied to too many conferences and overtheorized my project which led to a state of early burn out because I didn’t know enough about the academy to be able to gauge what level of effort was enough. As a result, I spent too much time trying to form my project into something I thought would be impressive to colleagues, faculty members, and future hiring committees. My personal goals collided and conflated with objectives I thought I was expected to own.

Then 2020 happened. My students suddenly experienced loss of family members, and other students had to single-handedly financially support their chronically ill parents. Some students dropped out of school entirely because it was all too much to handle. Cities, near and far, urban and rural, erupted in agony over the murders of George Floyd and numerous Black and Brown folks. People took to the streets in a stand against white supremacy, racial capitalism, and police brutality, with Black women and femmes largely at the helm. The West Coast was on fire for several months, producing the most expansive wildfires in multiple state’s histories. At the same time, folks campaigned to turn out the vote for a renewed chance at democracy. 2020, in sum, was a chaotic, anxiety-inducing, never-ending rollercoaster.

I spent quite a few feeble months struggling to cope with what felt like a crumbling society. At the same time, I knew deep down this moment shouldn’t be wasted—that these months of “down time” could be put to good use. In addition, I possess a certain amount of privilege (as a white person, someone with relatively decent health, someone with university support, someone with stable-enough income, and so on) that allows a silver lining in this crisis. Through this recognition, I decided that feeling helpless was no longer an option. If I wanted meaningful change like I claimed, I needed to get to work. Motivated by newfound energy, my outlook was suddenly ripe for change. Inspired by efforts people all over the country made to remedy our collective situations, I harkened back to the environmental justice work of my past.

My undergraduate years were filled with action, care, and community; and fulfillment was a regular reality—one need not search for it. My past activist work and Environmental Studies training enables me to think through the parallels of a larger system that overpowers the environment, People of Color/Indigenous people, poor and working-class people, non-human animals, and so many Others for purposes of capital accumulation. Initially, my dissertation was planned to be a postwar development story of Southern California’s Irvine Ranch region through an examination of immigration law, environmental movement, and policing. Yet to uncover this history, I would need access to Orange County’s archives, most of which remain closed into 2021.

In the wake of the pandemic, as schools, businesses, and archives closed, I reorganized my methods to craft an original project through oral histories, personal archival collections, and digital sources. My dissertation project has also taken on an even greater interdisciplinary approach than previously planned. With creative adjustment in mind due to myriad limitations on traditional historical work, I am punctuating the interdisciplinarity of my project through cultural analysis, political and legal analysis, media analysis, spatial analysis, and oral history methods.

I also expanded the geography of my research to include Northern Orange County as a means to not only compensate for dissertation length, but also because I cannot tell a development story without thinking about its regional costs. To supplement this work, I began volunteering in 2020 with Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ), an organization that addresses pollution in Santa Ana’s predominantly low-income Latinx communities. As a member of OCEJ’s Soil Lead Committee, I am working beside local residents, community activists, and UC Irvine researchers to locate sources of soil lead pollution, develop community outreach and education about OCEJ’s findings, and highlight possible routes for remediation. We’re also contextualizing the history of the city’s soil lead pollution through a review of greater Orange County historic development. Predicated on participatory-action research, I get to work alongside OCEJ to better understand environmental pollution in Santa Ana. My work with communities in Santa Ana informs a major portion of my research, especially as it relates to understanding the costs of development in Southern Orange County (Irvine) and its impact on Northern Orange County (Santa Ana).

At this point, as I descend upon exams, I can confidently say I’m glad to be where I am. I’m thankful to get to work with inspiring people and to do a project that means something to both me personally and to other working-class people. It also feels good to have returned to my first true passion: environmental justice. Things have come full circle for me and, though it is unfortunate that it took a crisis to force reflection, I’ve adapted my research plans, cultivated a project of care, and focused on what matters most. This last year was debilitating, but if there’s anything it taught me, it’s that once we do the work that matters, the sooner those echoes of imposter anxiety start to fade. They’ll never fully disappear, but we can learn to turn the volume down, if even for a little.

Juntxs: How to learn from the communities of care that helped us survive the COVID-19 pandemic

By Alma Alvarado Cabrera, Interdisciplinary Humanities Graduate Student, and Semajay Cleaver, English Major at UC Merced

As a child, my mother would tell me stories of when, in her youth, she left her small village to work in the tomato fields in Sinaloa, Mexico. It was a short yet impactful time in her life. The stories that she would share with me are about how a group of older women took care of and mentored her. My mother profoundly cares about friendship and providing care for her children, godchildren, and anyone she encounters. Yet, she struggles with what we call self-care, among other things. 

My mother gave me that first mode of care. Let us call this model the señora system: a group of women, usually older, sharing useful information, resources, and care among themselves and those they see mostly need it. After meeting Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison through their writing, I expanded my mother’s model to include self-care, or as these authors redefined it, “self-preservation” and healing. This señora and poetic model of care has been helping me navigate graduate school and the COVID-19 pandemic. A daily manifestation of this model is a text message group called the “Ph.D. Squad,” which has been around since the Fall of 2019 and is composed of four beautiful, resilient, and caring women: Jamie, Camille, Karla, and me. 

Image created by Alma Alvarado Cabrera

Physically, we have not seen each other for almost one year yet are in constant communication through text messaging and social media. Our conversations touch on graduate school life but are not limited to our student or educator lives. Before and throughout the pandemic, we speak of our need to heal multiple personal traumas or academic-specific traumas like impostor syndrome. We remind each other of the importance of rest, setting boundaries, and eating dessert! As expected during our sociopolitical climates, we also vent and complain in the group. And memes are frequently shared! 

“Working in Isolation,” photo by Alma Alvarado Cabrera

When coping with physical isolation, the Ph.D. Squad is a reminder that we can be with each other. It is a reminder that we can practice listening, caring, healing, and grieving together without being in the same physical space. It is also a space that reminds us of what could be once we can be in the same physical places. It is an invitation to dream and imagine a classroom, offices, or community spaces where healthy communication and care continue to be centered. Shouldn’t care and healing always be a priority when working with underserved communities? 

I am inviting you to pay attention to the communities of care that help us cope with the challenges of the pandemics we experience. What makes them communities of care? What makes them sustainable? Let us take note of what makes these communities of care so that we can replicate them. What can we learn from them? And how can we ensure that they continue thriving? We will eventually return to our work or gathering in places. Do we want these communities to continue? Systems of care were not perfect before the world was shocked by COVID-19 and other socioeconomic pandemics. The violence that these pandemics exposed will not go away with the vaccine. 

Conversations surrounding care, the active practice of allyship, and highlighting students’ agency should continue by providing our students with a flexible syllabus and reminding them of their agency. To imagine this future, I collaborated with Semajay Cleaver, my friend and former student. We virtually met amid the pandemic when I was a Teaching Assistant for English 102, a class under Dr. Felicia Lopez’s leadership. The conversations on care and healing have continued beyond our class discussion. We have been experiencing the pandemic alongside our students, and I hope we can invite them to speak of imagining new models of care. Semajay Cleaver is my brilliant and creative collaborator, who wrote this poem to encourage our commitment toward a continuous conversation about practicing care: 

I care,
Dreaming that we can bring comfort in the communities we share,
My well-being is like a jewel hidden at the bottom of a systematic pyramid guarded by traps,
I’ve tried all I could to get back,
To our roots.
Of comfort, love, hope, and understanding
It’s time we start planning, to provide a safe space
A place,
For all, no matter the gender, size, or race
It’s time to make the people in charge aware,
That underserved communities deserve their care… to be highlighted,
A place where all are invited,
Plenty would be delighted, to be reminded, that they matter.
No more acting as if you’d be indicted for focusing on your mental and emotional stability
Focus the mind, relax the soul, and allow tranquility
Centrémonos en el cuidado mental y emocional
Y lo haremos tradicional
Imagine all that we could be,
More than just you and me,
Heal and rebuild the self-care community
Growth is a result when there’s care
Longevity spreads through the air,
As if a seed has been planted at the base of your fingers and sprouting from the roots of your hair
I care,
I will no longer allow you to suppress yourself in the darkness of any kind,
You shine,
Listen to these words of mine,
Eres una estrella, brillando intensamente, se dirige lejos
You are loved.
Selfcare should come above… anything you believe matters more.
There’s always a closed door,
But there’s also an open window waiting for that leap of faith,
And if you’re still unsure, take a chance, close your eyes, and I promise you’ll soar.
I care,
For you, and so many more,
In hopes that we can return,
Love and appreciation into ourselves
The self-care community is screaming for help.

I Care 

“Flying,” photo by Alma Alvarado Cabrera

The Surf Zone in West Africa and Hawaii

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Does the surf zone—where sea and shore meet—provide coastal peoples with a more liminal space to transcend white hegemony regarding the body, sensuality and cultural exchange?

Kevin Dawson, an assistant professor of History at UC Merced, explored these questions during his Merced Seminar in the Humanities Talk: “Surfing and Waterscapes in Africa and Hawaii: Redefining Race and White Womanhood.”

Dawson noted that historians have been increasingly interested in coastal zones as sites of study, and have begun to consider “water people,” or those whose lives, rituals work and leisure take place not only on land, but close to the surf zone. For both Hawaiians and West Africans, such zones were “liquid and infinite,” Dawson said.

While western culture treated waterscapes as dangerous voids representing chaos as defined by Judeo-Christian texts such as the Book of Genesis, the early modern people of West Africa experienced the surf zone as a space of sport, play, and spirituality. West African parents were observed by Europeans teaching their children surfing techniques from an early age.

Swimming was revered in both Hawaii and West Africa, with both cultures teaching children to swim as toddlers. Although Europeans had once enjoyed swimming in the Greco-Roman period, the nudity associated with it led those in the early modern to Victorian period to view the activity with suspicion. When European ships arrived in Hawaii in the 18th Century, they were amazed to see Hawaiian men and women swim a mile out from the shore to their ships. In Hawaii, women surfed alongside men, and were honored as powerful warriors for their engagement with the waves. This included a royal Maui princess, whose prowess riding the waves was described as “the most graceful and daring surfer.”

When Europeans and Americans encountered the water people of Hawaii engaged in surfing and swimming, they conceptualized the activities as “primitive” and “savage”—but also exhibited a desire to assert white supremacy by mastering the sports. The descriptions used by California writer Jack London to describe Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku a native Hawaiian Olympic champion swimmer and popularizer of surfing in the early 20th century as “a young God, bronzed.” In the next sentence, London urged Anglo-Saxon whites to master surfing, and best Hawaiians at their own sport.

For white women, the surfing craze in the early 20th century offered an opportunity to escape from traditionally repressive structures regarding display of their body, sensuality and interracial romance. Dawson noted that trips to Hawaii were popular for the daughters of wealthy Americans, and young divorcees. They often were taught to surf by native Hawaiian men working at resort hotels.

One woman who visited Hawaii as a young adolescent in the 1930s, described her encounter with her Hawaiian surf instructor as awakening her sexuality. Dawson noted that biracial children sometimes resulted from interracial romances—adding to the cosmopolitan makeup of the Hawaiian population.

Women—both native Hawaiian and white—were just as well-known for surfing on the beaches of Hawaii as men prior to World War II. After the war, as Hawaiian culture was increasingly whitewashed by mainland acts such as The Beach Boys, women were more often depicted as beach bunnies. It is only in the present era, Dawson said, that women are once again rising to the same level of prominence and importance as men in the costal zone’s sports.

Globalization, Slavery and Pearls in the Age of Imperialism

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Although diamonds may be the gemstone commodity people currently associate with human rights conflicts, in the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, it was the luminous, natural pearl found in the Arabian Gulf that was widely desired, yet also connected to a persisting slave trade.

Matthew Hopper, an Associate Professor of History at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo explored this world during his recent seminar talk at the Center for the Humanities, entitled “Pearls, Slavery, and Fashion: Enslaved African Pearl Divers in the Persian Gulf in the Age of Empire.” Hopper’s book, Slaves of One Master: Globalization and Slavery in Arabia in the Age of Empire, was published by Yale University Press in 2015.

During the pearling season of 1873, an enslaved pearl diver swam over and climbed aboard a British cruiser. What followed was a conflict between the British abolition movement, and the burgeoning craze for pearls brought about by increased wealth from industrialization in both the United Kingdom and the United States.

Describing the conflict as a “diplomatic hailstorm,” Hopper noted that the case became a cause célèbre that had lasting ramifications when enslaved pearl divers or pearling ship crew members attempted to seek asylum with the British. Fearing the diplomatic impact that granting asylum would have upon the pearl trade, the British decided against a policy of helping enslaved pearl divers.

Hopper noted that while the British were proud of their work in the abolition movement from the late 18th century on, and the United States had abolished slavery with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, both nations had a voracious appetite for Gulf Pearls, fed by a burgeoning print culture.

In the popular press, Queen Victoria, and French Empress Eugénie de Montijo were both depicted favoring pearls. The newly wealthy from trade and industrialization sought to emulate the nobility by purchasing and wearing pearls.

The practice of enslavement of people from East Africa for use in the Gulf pearling trade persisted into the 20th Century. Some of the enslaved came from Mozambique and Tanzania. Ships often featured crews that were mixed between those owning the boat, paid employees, and their slaves. Arabian ship owners worked in a network of global trade with merchants from India, who then funneled many of the valuable pearls into American and European markets.

In America, although a small industry of freshwater pearls from rivers existed, the newly wealthy Americans sought Gulf pearls. The American craze for pearls in fashion kicked into high gear in the second half of the 19th Century to the early 20th Century. The November 6 1895, wedding of Consuelo Vanderbilt to Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough at St. Thomas’ Church in Manhattan was a turning point in the craze for pearls. The New York Times coverage of the wedding, engineered despite the bride’s objections by her socially ambitious mother, Alva Smith Vanderbilt, was called “the most elaborate ever in this country.” Press coverage noted that Consuelo Vanderbilt’s dress would be sewn with real pearls. After she became the Duchess of Marlborough, Consuelo Vanderbilt was frequently photographed wearing pearl chokers, and long pearl opera-length ropes. Hopper said the years 1910-1914 were the peak years of value for Gulf pears, representing the last years of the Gilded Age prior to the start of World War I.

It was an enterprising Japanese businessman, Mikimoto, whose development of the cultured pearl ultimately brought about an end to the demand for Gulf Pearls harvested by enslaved divers. In 1893, he created the first cultured pearl, and thus changed forever the value and consumption of pearls. Freed of the need to harvest oysters in the Gulf in hopes of finding priceless natural pearls, the public began to buy cultured Japanese pearls. “Mikimoto thought every woman should be able to afford a pearl necklace,” Hopper said.

Sadly, the collapse of Gulf pearling created other problems. The freed former pearling slaves now faced hunger and poverty, as they were left to their own devices in the years following World War I. In the 1920s, former enslaved pearl divers often approached British colonial experts saying that they thought they were still the property of those who had owned the Gulf pearling ships, and that such people were obligated to feed them.

Center for Humanities fellows noted after the talk issues of enslavement persist today, whether it be in sex trafficking, or the shrimp industry, which has been exposed for the enslavement of workers. Those in attendance discussed using research and apps to understand ethical concerns related to products.

Water Rights and the National Land for People Movement in the West Valley

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Can water laws meant to protect small family farms be used to give Latinx farmworkers a stake in land ownership in the Central Valley?

This question was central to Mario Sifuentez’s presentation “Land, Food Security and Water Rights in the Central Valley: Farmworkers, the Westlands, and the National Land for People” on Oct. 7, at the UC Merced Center for the Humanities seminar.

Sifuentez, a Center for the Humanities Fellow and assistant professor who specializes in labor, immigration, food and agriculture at UC Merced, said that during the 1970s, The National Land for  People movement, based in Fresno, attempted to use a 1902 law on the books limiting farms that received federal irrigation to 160 acres.

The 1902 Reclamation law, passed during the Progressive Era, was intended to prevent federally funded irrigation projects from being used by robber barons and large corporations, including railroads, in land grabs.

Enforcement of this law on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley proved difficult, Sifuentez said, as family farming corporations would add to their ownership of land by having the title of farm land put in the names of employees, friends or neighbors to skirt the law.

A populist movement connected to the United Farm Workers was founded in 1964 by George Ballis, a populist activist. He envisioned enforcement of the Reclamation Act allowing those who worked the land as farm workers to be able to buy land and become small-scale farmers themselves.

The west side of the San Joaquin Valley is the site of some of the largest farms, Sifuentez noted. This has created vast wealth for family corporations who benefit from Federal water reclamation projects, but has also left Latinix farm workers living in conditions where they do not always have access to clean drinking water.

National Land for People focused their efforts on confronting the Westlands Water District, which stretches from Kettleman City in the south to land north of Mendota. Although National Land for People were successful in winning lawsuits to enforce the Reclamation Act, that progress came to a halt in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. The 1902 law was gutted by his administration, and land owners using federal reclamation water were subsequently allowed to own over 900 acres, and were no longer required to reside on the land.

Sifuentez plans to write his next academic book  on National Land for People and its quest to empower and give property to the people who actually planted, harvested and processed the crops on the west side of the valley. His first book, Of Forests and Fields: Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwestwas published this year by Rutgers University Press.

Native Hawaiian Music and Cultural Capital in 19th Century Whaling

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

When men went to sea in the nineteenth century whaling industry, they entered a working environment which was not only dangerous, demanding, and dirty, but also a space of cosmopolitan exchange with other sailors, according to Dr. James Revell Carr, an ethnomusicologist from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Carr recently presented “‘Selamoku Hula’: Native Hawaiian Music and Dance at Sea in the 19th Century” as part of the Merced Seminar in the Humanities. As part of his presentation, Carr taught those in attendance a chantey entitled “John Kanaka,” whose title refers to Native Pacific Islanders working on American whaling ships. “Kanaka” is a Hawaiian term for “human being.” Research into the origins of “John Kanaka,” which was used by sailors when hauling up the sails, led Carr to speculate that the song’s Hawaiian lyrics which included the term “stand your ground,” were in part instructions to keep one’s feet firmly on the decking in order to maintain safety standards.

Today, “John Kanaka” is learned by numerous school children, and is sung by park rangers and volunteers from the San Francisco Martime National Historical Park, where Carr previously worked as an interpretive specialist. The original meaning and context of the song did not begin to become apparent to Carr until an elderly woman approached him after a performance and introduced herself as a Native Hawaiian. In his book, “Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries and Minstrels,” Carr writes that the woman told him her father was a stevedore in Honolulu, who sang songs combining Hawaiian words with English sailors’ expressions such as “by gum” and “ahoy.” This piqued Carr’s interest, and was the impetus for the research project which lead to his book.

Beyond a means of inclusion within the whaling work space, Native Hawaiian music became an important part of cultural circulation and exchange on the seas. Carr said that whaling ships would often meet up in the waling grounds, during which sailors would trade scrimshaw, books, and music. One mariner’s diary he read an excerpt from noted that during an occasion in which his ship met up with several others, mariners sang songs representing their nationalities and  ethnicities, including Hawaiians. Another sailor, from New England, used his personal copy book to record in Hawaiian a song he learned from Native Hawaiian whalers. The sailors noted that they looked forward to impressing others with their knowledge of a Hawaiian song, reflecting the concept of cultural capital.

While Native Hawaiians were looked down upon by missionaries and those in the sugar plantation trade, in whaling, the working class masculine culture was based around mutual respect for hard work among sailors. “It mattered less if you were American or Hawaiian or English,” Carr said. “What mattered was if you worked hard, and had skills in seamanship, and bravery when facing the whale.” American missionaries attempted to keep Native Hawaiians working on the sugar plantations in Hawaii, but journals and letters Carr has found indicate that most preferred working at sea, where they were treated with more respect, and their culture was appreciated.

Although the cosmopolitan age of the whaling ships ended in the latter half of the nineteenth century, elements of native Hawaiian songs sung at sea continue to appear, whether reinterpreted as music for children or as a popular wedding song. Few Americans today are aware that Hawaiian music has a long history of popularity and inclusion in the repertoire of American popular music, Carr noted. Yet it was Hawaiians who “gave the world a unique combination of sliding steel guitar, driving ukulele, falsetto yodels, and loping, syncopated rhythms that have influenced America since the 1890s at least,” he wrote.

Water Architecture: When Aesthetics Mirrors Social Values

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

When most people look at a pumping station or dam along California’s intricate water supply systems, they may think of technology, drought and the Golden State’s insatiable thirst.

Rina Faletti, a Postdoctoral Scholar for the UC Merced Center for Humanities and an art historian who studies the history of urban water systems, sees much more.

Trained in landscape theory and cultural geography at the University of Texas, Austin, where she received her doctorate, when Faletti looks at the 1910 neoclassical Sunol Water Temple in southern Alameda County, she sees an embodiment of the values of the culture which designed and built these water supply features into the temple’s architectural details.

“When someone looks at or imagines a ‘landscape’—whether it is a landscape painting or a garden, ‘wilderness’ or ‘nature’—that viewer perceives ideas and feels emotions that are a reflection of that culture’s ideas about what is beautiful and valuable,” Faletti explained. “My contention is these buildings were just as important as banks or churches, in their time, in conveying values.”

Using the example of the Sunol Water Temple, designed by Willis Polk in 1910 and built by the Spring Valley Water Company, which provided water service for San Francisco from 1860 – 1930, Faletti noted that neoclassical designs for waterworks structures shape the way we think about water.

“Viewers might admire the temple form of the buildings, and in turn admire the patrons of the buildings; in a sense this is a way in which art has been used to ground the public support of industrial capitalism, as a basis for American urban development. From another point of view, just as valid, the associations with ancient Greece and Rome confirm political foundations of a representative republic. Third, the neoclassical aesthetic permits an association with the Romans, whom American culture traditionally laud as being the most forward-thinking engineers in history. These are just three possible ways to interpret the aesthetic form of a neoclassical waterworks structure on a city water supply system,” she explained.

In her studies of water architecture in the American West, Faletti confronts the mythos of the landscape as something to be conquered and dominated, a philosophy writ large by historian Fredrick Jackson Turner during his 1893 talk on the significance of frontier during the Chicago World’s Fair.

“Turner interpreted the West in Romantic terms. The idea viewed settlers and explorers as independent heroes who represented Americans as a whole, who conquered a hostile land by continuously and ceaselessly moving across it,” Faletti noted. The American West was postulated as a ‘savage’ landscape in need of ‘civilization,’ and this point of view ignored the cultures of Native Americans, which already existed, and other perspectives besides those of male explorers and historians, Faletti said.

The “civilizing” values suggested by Greco-Roman water temples of the 19th and early 20th centuries also gave way to a romantic look backward at California’s own past in the Mission architecture of some water conveyance structures. Just east of Merced, beside Highway 140, sits a Pacific Gas and Electric substation built during this period which Faletti said provides a great example of Mission Revival in historic water architecture.

As the 20th Century moved into the Art Deco period, dams built as water reclamation projects often featured ornamental details and motifs. One such dam was the Hollywood Reservoir’s 1924 Mulholland Dam, named for Los Angeles Department of Water and Power engineer William Mullholland.

“It could be seen from everywhere in Hollywood,” Faletti said.

Today, the beauty of the dam is no longer visible, for a surprising reason: The failure of another Mulholland dam. In 1928, the St. Francis Dam, spanning the San Francisquito Canyon 40 miles north of Los Angeles, collapsed, resulting in a catastrophic flood which killed as many as 600 people.

Following the St. Francis Dam failure, the Department of Water and Power covered the Mullholland Dam with millions of acre feet of dirt backfill, according to Faletti. This took place during the height of the Great Depression, a time when Californians’ confidence in the state had been undermined.

“The politics of buttressing a dam that did not need bolstering were about the public perception of safety, not actual structural soundness,” Faletti said. Echoing her contention that a time period’s and a community’s values are reflected in its water architecture, Faletti noted that one engineer at the time denigrated aesthetic design elements of dams, which he saw as “feminine.”

Faletti said her scholarship has been enhanced by her time as a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Center for the Humanities at UC Merced, and noted how much she enjoys refining her water architecture scholarship.

“Water and power are beautiful problems to have, and both as human and as technological problems, they are not going away anytime soon. My job is to observe, record, and comment on the process, and it’s a privilege to provide that service to humanity,” she said.