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Scholar's Introduction

California – State of Immigration and Change

The history of California is a story of massive growth and constant change. It is a unique and fascinating tale that brings together California’s vast and diverse landscape with the state’s most dynamic feature – its people.

The authors of We Are California have attempted to provide a broad overview of this history. The site is a work in progress and much is left out. What is here is meant to prompt others to complete what we have begun. With We Are California, we hope to inspire and help others to tell their own stories of migration and immigration to California.

Why is the story of immigration important to California? What role has immigration played in making California one of the most unique and vibrant places—with one of the largest economies—in the world?

It is helpful to know that for most of California’s history the majority of its residents were born somewhere else. The history and ongoing story of California is one of continual change as new populations arrive to join those who came before and make their own impression on the “Golden State.” So, who or what is California?

  • California is the Yahi tribal chief who died in 1650, never knowing or imagining a white man.
  • California is the Franciscan priest who journeyed to establish the Spanish colony of Alta California in 1769.
  • California is the Chinese laborer who sailed across the Pacific to work on the transcontinental railroad in 1866.
  • California is the African American woman who left Arkansas for California to help build Liberty Ships during World War II.
  • California is a group of school children who were born in Oaxaca, Mumbai, Phnom Penh, Boise, and Kiev learning to play soccer together.

All of these people and hundreds of thousands more from around the world and throughout the U.S. have come together here to shape California in all ways -- culturally, socially, politically, economically. The diverse cultures they represent contribute to and change California with each new generation.

Change and Blending of Cultures

The change and the blending of cultures that have shaped California come from many directions. Immigrant food cultures are brought to California, but then are changed due to the absence of some ingredients and the presence of others in this new land. Chain migrations of families and friends remake portions of California cities into “Little Tapeis” or “Koreatowns” – and then there is “Buck Owens Boulevard” named for the Texas-born country singer who made his home in Bakersfield. Daughters and sons of immigrant groups such as the Hmong or Punjabi Sikhs marry the children of other immigrant and migrant groups; their children then illustrate one way of being distinctly Californian.

The California political landscape also is changed by the arrival of immigrants from distant shores and migrants from other states. An African-American migrant from the American South in the 1940’s brings with him a hatred of inequality to a place more receptive to his ideas than where he was born. A lesbian woman travels to San Francisco in 1970 from a small town in the Midwest to find a life of freedom and acceptance. A Vietnamese immigrant comes to California in the early1980s despising communism and joins the Republican Party. In the process, he simultaneously changes the demographics of the conservatives while bucking the trend of Asian-American liberals.

Certainly native-born Californians also have influenced the course of California history. From native California Indians born well before European conquest to the well over 500,000 babies that will be born in the state this year, California natives play key roles in continuity and change. But even the native born, if they delve deep enough into the past, can trace their ancestors back to stories of how they came. California is, indeed, a place made and remade by folks from places beyond the coastal waters, the verdant valleys, and the towering mountains that some 38 million people today call home.

Knowledge and the Immigration Debate

We are inundated with information about immigration. And we are regularly confronted with arguments about immigration. Journalists in the news media, politicians seeking higher office, and opinionated bloggers each have ideas to share about the impact of immigration and migration on the state of California. Yet in spite of all that is being said, the history of immigration and migration to the state is relatively little known, or at least known only in the most general of terms.

It is the goal of this website to inform Californians, or those studying California, about both the broad sweep of movements to California and the lives and contributions of the people who came and continue to settle here. Most importantly, it is our goal for the users of this site to contribute their own stories about We Are California. All together, we hope the histories and the personal stories on this site just might help to elevate the terms of the debate to include the human historical dimension.

At the California Council for the Humanities it is our firm belief that possessing knowledge of the long and complex history of immigration and migration to California is necessary for understanding the role of immigration today. Knowing more about the experiences of various migrant and immigrant groups will also make us better neighbors. Whether you are a native born Californian or a recent immigrant, it is likely that you know many individuals who have recently moved to the state. This website endeavors to provide the context for the movements of your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers, your teachers and students.

Historical Perspectives on Immigration

Historians have long debated various facets of the immigrant experience. Given a wide range of source material and changing preconceptions, historians over the past 150 years have offered up a variety of ever-evolving answers to the most interesting and pressing questions about immigration and migration to California.

Take the following question, for example: why did Congress vote to exclude Chinese laborers from entering the United States in 1882? Early on, one observer explained that the movement to exclude Chinese laborers was attributable, in part, to the self-aggrandizing personality of a single politician. Others viewed the exclusion movement as a legitimate response by workers who feared losing their jobs to cheap foreign laborers. Still others added that workers wanted to punish the wealthy and hated railroad owners by seeking to eliminate their supply of labor. Looking at the exclusion movement years later, some historians argued that exclusion came to pass as part of an attempt by the Democratic Party to reestablish itself after its decline in the Civil War years. Recently, some scholars have claimed that a preexisting sense of racial supremacy prejudiced white Americans against Chinese laborers. That it was largely based on the drive to create a racially pure California that inspired the exclusion movement. Whatever the ultimate reason, the debate demonstrates the persistence of multiple, often divergent, opinions on a single question.

The authors of this website seek to navigate the tricky and perpetually shifting ground upon which historical interpretations are constructed, and on which these questions are answered. Whether the observations contained in the pages ring true to the ears of the reader or seem false, we encourage you to read further, to examine more closely the terms of the debate, and, as best as possible, to listen to the words of the historical individuals who experienced and observed the vast transformations that we hoped to bring alive in this website.

A Note on Terminology and Resources

Students new to California immigration history certainly will encounter new and unfamiliar terms, names, and events in the web pages that follow. We have made every effort to define those words and phrases on this site. For those terms that require additional explanation, we have scoured the Internet for the best, most accessible, and accurate definitions possible.

In many cases this means that users of this website will be directed to the excellent immigration sites created by organizations such as the Library of Congress or the California Immigrant Policy Center. In other cases, the best definition could be found on small, community-based websites or even open-source encyclopedias such as wikipedia.org. Although some may question the wisdom of referring readers to wikipedia, we feel that websites that feature user-generated content are well within the spirit of what we hope to accomplish with the California Council for the Humanities immigration website: a multiplicity of people raising their voices to paint a picture of diverse human experiences.

The two terms users of this website will encounter most frequently are “immigration” and “migration”. On this website, these terms refer to two different kinds of movements. “Immigration” refers to the movement of peoples across borders or other national boundaries. It is about international movement. “Migration” is the term used for the movement of peoples within the United States. For this website, migration most often refers to the movement of people from other states or regions of the country to California.

Dr. Martin Meeker, Lead Scholar