Whites and Oranges

Posted on 5 March 2014

In the bygone view of the California Fruit Growers Exchange (CFGE)—better known as Sunkist—every stage of California citriculture, from germination to consumption, involved only white people. This racial fantasyland can be seen in The Land of Oranges, a 1929 booklet for children:

Land of Oranges

In truth, the citrus industry in the Golden State has always relied on fruit pickers drawn from racialized immigrant groups, three in particular: Chinese, then Japanese, and ultimately Mexicans, supplemented in the past by various other populations, including indigenous Californians, Punjabis, Koreans, Filipinos, as well as itinerant white men dubbed “bindlestiffs.”

For contrasting views, consider two shots of Japanese pickers from the early twentieth century next to a 1937 photo detail of the mural by Frank Bowers that once adorned CFGE headquarters in downtown Los Angeles:

Orange pickers

Surprisingly, the corporate whitewashing of orange picking in California was reproduced by artists funded by FDR’s pro-labor New Deal, as seen in this 1933 mural at Coit Tower in San Francisco:

Coit Tower mural detail

And in the mural at the Fullerton Post Office (seen here in the 1941–42 study by artist Paul H. Julian):

Paul H. Julian, Fullerton mural study

Once the non-white male workers had been removed from view, the final visual move was to feminize and sexualize orange picking for the white male gaze. In the 1940s the CFGE produced a series of what might be called citrus soft porn: pinups of smiling young women in bathing suits or shorts, balanced on ladders, picking oranges while bending for the camera. Labor had become play.

Orange pinups

(For a detailed history of California citrus, see part 3 of my book Trees in Paradise.)

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