Pulling Back the Orange Curtain: The Authors of A People's Guide to Orange County Reflect on Their Process
by Gustavo Arellano, Elaine Lewinnek, and Thuy Vo Dang
Diversifying academia requires demystifying the process of academic publishing, so here’s our story of how our book happened.
Elaine: When I saw Laura Barraclough at the 2014 Urban History Association conference, I raved to her about A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, the book that Barraclough had just co-written with Laura Pulido and Wendy Cheng. It’s a brilliant synthesis of radical history in the accessible format of a guidebook, harnessing the power of place to affect collective memory. I gushed to Laura that her book had inspired my students at Cal State Fullerton to write their own guides to Orange County, because so many insights of the Los Angeles Guide apply even more intensely to Orange County. In both spaces, existing tourism is often limited to passive spectacle in mostly-white spaces supporting corporate profits. Too few people recognize that there is an Orange County beyond amusement parks, malls, and ultra-wealthy gated communities. Too many tourists, locals, and students do not understand the diversity of Orange County’s past and present. We need A People’s Guide to Orange County, I told Laura, and she said: “You’re right. We need that and you should write it.”
I tell this story because I want aspiring authors to know that choosing a research project can be as simple as thinking about what book you really want to read, then writing that book. Networking is also not mysterious: go to conferences, especially mid-sized conferences where scholars of varying ranks actually talk to each other. Be yourself, express your sincere enthusiasm, and you may be surprised what opportunities come your way.
An ambitious interdisciplinary work like A People’s Guide cannot be done well alone, Laura Barraclough told me. It was easy to think about ideal co-authors. From conducting oral histories to reviewing restaurants, Gustavo Arellano and Thuy Vo Dang have skills & knowledge that complement my own – and we like each other. They are the ideal group to work with.
Thuy: When Elaine invited me to join her in this research and writing adventure, I had just finished my visual history book, Vietnamese in Orange County, with co-authors Linda Trinh Vo and Tram Le. I had planned on taking a break from collaborative writing projects because, let’s be honest, those often demand much more time, diplomacy, and messiness than lone projects. But the opportunity to learn by doing more in-depth research on Orange County and to work with such a dream team was really hard to say no to.
I’m really proud of what we’re putting out into the world--a book that pushes readers to think deeply and critically about the places and people that have largely been dismissed in mainstream scholarship or maligned in cultural representations. I like to think of this book as a wayfinder to sites of resistance and resilience.
Our book is the product of a team that has expertise in urban history, oral history, archives, journalism, and also lived experience in Orange County. I have learned so much from working with Elaine, who is a passionate educator who cares deeply for her students, many of whom call Orange County home. I think of her writing as an extension of the care she gives to her students--sort of like planting the seed of critical thinking, telling a good story, and encouraging readers or students to explore beyond the pages. I am also in awe of Gustavo’s deep and wide knowledge of the region, from his years of observation and participation in the rich life and movements of many of the places explored in the book. True to his background, he writes at lightning speed.
Gustavo: I can’t even remember how I got involved, honestly — but when I did, I knew we had something special. I was familiar with the “People’s Guide” series by UC Press, but never imagined that it would include Orange County, because it’s a place still too easily dismissed by academics and journalists alike as a cesspool of culture and politics. So God bless Elaine to have had the gumption to ask, because I know I never would’ve!
We called Elaine, Thuy, and I the Dream Team to write this book, because we were — we each brought distinct, important, essential perspectives to covering Orange County and cobbling together this incredible compendium. I had spoken at Elaine’s classes before, and I knew Thuy by reputation, but to get to collaborate on something like this — well, again, never had the gumption to imagine it!
Thuy: There were so many moments when I could feel my sense of connectedness to Orange County grow and deepen as we worked on this book. When it finally came together towards the end, I saw how this could be a powerful tool for public education at many grade levels. At the beginning of 2020, just before the pandemic lockdown, my son’s third-grade teacher assigned a “Wax Museum” project. Students were required to select American heroes to research and then re-enact in a visual performance of history. Although Orange County students are diverse, most of the historic heroes they considered were white and male. Many selected “founding fathers” or Martin Luther King, Jr. My son was one of the few Asian American students in his grade level, and I wanted to help him find a hero he could identify with and embody, providing a different shade to the typical representations at his school.
I turned to our research for A People’s Guide to Orange County and talked to my son about Kazuo Masuda, a Nisei soldier who fought in the well-known 442nd battalion during WWII and whose family was incarcerated while he fought and died for the United States. The Masudas owned a farm in what is now Fountain Valley. There is now a middle school named after Kazuo Masuda there, and that school tells the story of Kazuo Masuda’s heroism, but not the broader context of how the entire Masuda family publicly resisted discrimination in Fountain Valley in the 1940s, successfully insisting on their right to occupy space in Orange County.
My son became enthralled as we explored less-widely-known sources including the single book published about Kazuo Masuda, the Heroes Hall exhibit at the OC Fair, and the Westminster Memorial Park where Kazuo Masuda was buried after his family protested racial segregation in that cemetery, as well as racial segregation in housing. We not only talked about the “heroic” aspect of Kazuo Masuda’s life and death, but about the resistance and resilience of his sister, mother, and family. This experience got me excited about the possibilities of where our book can go. With our book, I hope other Orange County third-graders may have an easier time locating heroes who look like them.
Elaine: In an experiment with popular peer review, we invited friends of ours who are high-school teachers to share a draft of our book with their students, because we wanted to make sure our book was accessible to a wide audience. Those friends ended up developing lesson plans to use with our book that were so fabulous we have included them in an appendix, because we hope teachers will use this book in their classrooms across many grade levels.
One of those eleventh-grade students, Joyce, let us know that our brief mention of the bracero program was insufficient. We had struggled to convey the impact of the bracero program that, from 1941-1965, dehumanized some Mexican farm-laborer immigrants as only “arms,” or, in Spanish, braceros. The workers in the bracero program were the first Latinx immigrants to the U.S. who were ineligible for citizenship, marking a profound shift in U.S. immigration policy and attitudes. Because bracero workers were not permitted to leave their year-long contracts, the bracero program was rife with abuses. And because large farmers had advantages navigating the bureaucracy to access affordable bracero labor, the program also contributed to the consolidation of OC agricultural ownership.
When I next saw Joyce, I thanked her for her feedback, and explained she had inspired us to include a whole new entry on bracero housing in Orange County, in order to tell the OC bracero story as fully as it deserves. Joyce replied, “Oh, I don’t need that any more. After I read your book, I noticed that braceros are in my AP U.S. history textbook. Also, it turns out that my grandfather was a bracero.”
I have never been so delighted to have a reader tell me my work was unnecessary. Joyce’s comment underscores the point of our book. Often, the stories in our book are not hidden: Joyce’s grandpa knew his own story all along. But without our book inviting Joyce to think about wider historic contexts, she had not fully heard her grandpa’s story until our book prompted her to ask new questions and listen to the answers in new ways.
We hope there are a lot of readers like Joyce out there, readers whose experience with our book spurs them to notice the people’s history that is already all around them and that continues to emerge. We hope our book will instigate further investigations into Orange County.
Gustavo: As someone who wrote a whole book about Orange County history, wrote exclusively about OC for nearly all my professional career, and is a born-and-bred fourth-generation OCer, I knew most of the stories that we uncovered — but not all, and not in the depth and detail that Elaine, Thuy and I were able to show with our writings. And we all knew that the vast majority of our readers were not familiar with what we covered, so that passion and excitement to share this information with others was one of our motivating factors. You can read our enthusiasm on the page. This is a passion project for all of us, not some vanity-press gobbledygook to pad our resumes.
Elaine: Too few people know that Orange County developed private Homeowners' Associations and also fair housing laws. Orange County’s military brought conservative politics and also an LGTBQ community here. Orange County’s involvement in the Cold War included research facilities that left chemicals still in the ground, and also brought us refugees who formed Little Saigon, Little Arabia, and more. Orange County’s history zigzags like that, fascinatingly, and we are excited to share this now with more readers.
Buy a copy of the book here!
Gustavo Arellano is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, covering Soutnern California everything and a bunch of the West and beyond. He is author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Orange County: A Personal History, and !Ask a Mexican!, and co-author of A People’s Guide to Orange County.
Elaine Lewinnek is professor of American Studies and chair of the Environmental Studies program at California State University Fullerton. She is co-author of A People's Guide to Orange County and also author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl.
Thuy Vo Dang is Curator for the University of California, Irvine Libraries Southeast Asian Archive and Research Librarian for Asian American studies. She has a Ph.D. in ethnic studies from UC San Diego and is co-author of the books, A People's Guide to Orange County and also Vietnamese in Orange County. Thuy serves on the board of directors for Arts OC and the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association.