“Some races increase, others are reduced, and in a
short while the generations of living creatures are
changed and like runners relay the torch of life.”


Reading student applications for scholarships, as I have done on and off now for a dozen years on the undergraduate scholarships committee of the University of California, Davis, has some of the qualities of watching a Frank Capra movie. It wasn’t always so in the early 1970’s, when the typical successful high school student was born into a comfortable suburban California middle-class home. But by the end of the decade, the “personal statement” essays by some of the students began to resemble 19th- and early-20th-century novels, autobiographies, and oral histories about the immigrant experience in America.

It was not unusual, by the early 1980’s, to read a well-written statement explaining how the candidate had escaped Southeast Asia on a boat with a remnant of his or her family, how the student thankfully arrived in California to enter junior high school barely speaking any English, and how the student’s hard work and family sacrifice led to the student’s graduating as valedictorian of the high school class. Teachers’ and counselors’ recommendations confirmed that, if anything, the students were modest in writing their personal statements. By most accounts, these students do as well at the university as they did in high school.

When I remarked on this pattern to a group of colleagues, a friend in Asian-American studies cautioned me not to make too much of this. “We are seeing only the successful ones,” he warns. “What about all those who don’t ‘make it’?” He caught me, of course, in the positive stereotyping that is the mirror image of the negative sort, assuming that a handful of successful members of an immigrant or native racial group “proves” that they all could “make it” if only they tried.

Still, there is evidence that the “boat people” of the 1978 immigration, as opposed even to the more Westernized, better-educated, Englishspeaking Vietnamese immigrants after the 1975 fall of Saigon, combine strong work and education ethics that we white Americans like to think characterized our first-generation grandparents and great-grandparents. For example, a July 19, 1985, Associated Press story reported on the research project directed by Nathan Caplan at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Caplan and his colleagues studied nearly 6,000 Southeast Asian refugees—Laotian, Vietnamese, and ethnic Chinese boat people—in 1,400 households in Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Houston, and Orange County, California. The success of these immigrants stunned the researchers. Nearly two-thirds had found jobs, over a quarter of their children were getting “straight A’s” in school, and within four years of arriving in the United States the “average refugee family had achieved a steady income of nearly twice the poverty level.”

There is a dark side to this story, as even Frank Capra would have seen and included in a film version of this story. The fact that these Indochinese children are “shattering grade school curves” (as the Associated Press put it) means that many of their fellow students come to resent their success, and the resentment easily becomes racist. The national news media earlier this year paid special attention to the rising tide of racist expressions and violence against Asians in America, but I see it in other forms in the ethnic jokes, folk beliefs, and graffiti I collect from my students in folklore classes. How ironic is the American immigrant experience in discovering that success brings scorn and discrimination almost as surely as does failure.

If there were not a California, Americans would have to invent her. The state is the ideal testing ground for Americans’ working out the sort of society that will emerge when the “new immigration” meets established American traditions and institutions. The July 8, 1985, issue of Time magazine devoted most of its space to articles exploring the dimensions of the “new immigration” and explaining (rather simplistically, as one might expect) the impact of this immigration upon the nation. The numbers of “new immigrants” admitted since 1961 under various refugee acts are surprising even to those who pay attention to these things, and these numbers do not even include the illegal immigrants.

California represents an intensified version of the cultural drama unfolding as these new immigrants settle in U.S. communities. California is rapidly becoming part of the Hispanic Americas; there are very large communities of Indochinese in both the north and south; and San Francisco’s Chinese community has a steady influx of new immigrants. Bilingualism is a hot political and cultural issue, represented most dramatically last year by former Senator Hayakawa’s ballot proposition to make English the official language of the state. The proposition fed on a panic born of a demographic reality—namely, that the “Anglos” in the state will soon be the minority population. America would be wise to watch California closely as we at the edge of the continent work by design or accident toward a modified American society.

California has a history of “new immigrants,” in a sense, from the Spaniards to the present. And most Californians native to this country are only first or second-generation migrants in any case. Kevin Starr—journalist, professor of communications, and former librarian of the City of San Francisco—offers a history of California that may lend clues to understanding what needs to be America’s response to the new immigration. His Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era follows Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (1973) as the next installment of an ambitious cultural history of the state. Whereas the first volume emphasizes Northern California and the state’s history before 1900, the new volume takes Southern California as the embodiment of the Progressive Era “dream,” and herein lies the relevance of Starr’s book to the new immigration these 70 years later.

Starr’s subject is the dialectic emerging “as the California of fact and the California of imagination shape and reshape each other” during this period of the emergence of a regional society and the invention of a “California dream” that would explain and justify that society. Starr deals some with the overtly imaginative materials—the novels of Mary Austin and Helen Hunt Jackson and Jack London, say, or the paintings of James Bond Francisco or the buildings by architects Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene—but Starr is canny enough to know that “imaginative materials” in a business civilization include, also, the booster literature of California politics, business, banking, and agriculture. So Starr offers us portraits of such key characters as Los Angeles Times publisher and real estate speculator Harrison Gray Otis, Times city editor Charles Fletcher Lummis, agriculture journalist Edward James Wickson, and Bank of Italy (later Bank of America) founder Amadeo Peter Giannini, all of whom contributed significantly to a story, a “mythology,” about California in general and Southern California in particular. The stories were sometimes contradictory and usually departed significantly from the facts. But all understood that a people must have a set of stories and images to guide their actions, even if one function of those stories and images is to cloak economic motives in grander ethical garb.

California’s first self-image was that of a frontier, which translated into the “Americanization” of the Mexican Californios, Through the three decades following the American Civil War, Mexican-held land fell into the hands of Anglo-Americans, who subdivided the ranchos into residential areas that eventually became Southern California towns and cities. Very few of the Californios learned how to do business “Yankee-style,” and the Americanization process included some dramatic displays of racism and violence chronicled by Starr.

As the frontier self-image waned, California’s dream-makers created a new mythology, what Starr calls the myth of “the American farm perfected.” Flirting briefly with the semitropical image, California boosters settled on the more civilized Mediterranean metaphor. Image-makers as diverse as architects and designers of orange crate labels assisted in the myth, but it was LA Times city editor Lummis who worked the hardest to create a Spanish “mission myth” at the center of Southern California’s booster ideology in the 1880’s and 90’s, even to the point of building a Spanish mansion. El Alisul, at Arroyo Seco. Lummis and others created a pastoral, feudal myth that justified its opposite—an industrialized, mass society. Frank Miller’s Mission Inn in Riverside, the immensely successful Mission Play (an outdoor drama-spectacle), the aesthetic movement known as “Arroyo Culture,” and the advertising campaigns aimed at making raisins and oranges staple foods all participated in the story.

Starr’s most important point almost gets lost in his telling the stories of these colorful characters and places, but it is worth making here. Underlying the Mission Myth and related self-images was a racial myth quite in keeping with the cultural context of the period, a myth that said that “Southern California was the Anglo-Saxons’ destined place.” The dilemma inherent in Lummis’ myth was its delicate and unresolved bringing together of Western frontier vigor and Eastern refinement.

Also departing from this booster. Mission Myth was an equally vigorous California movement toward experimenting with collectives, cooperatives, and socialist ideas. A colony system emerged in Southern California agriculture, each colony created by an ethnic group (e.g., the French in San Jose, the Germans in Anaheim, the Danes in Solvang) pursuing a quasi-utopian impulse. The agriculture cooperative movement was strong in California, with over half of the state’s agriculture done by co-ops by 1920; and there were explicitly socialist farming experiments, such as the Llano del Rio colony and the Durham Settlement. The Populist and progressive movements in California also had their share of theorists, most notably Fresno journalist Chester Harvey Rowell, who urged Californians to think of themselves as a community holding a life in common and working toward its perfection.

Starr’s story would be one merely of an interesting regional society were it not for the emergence of the American film industry during this period. For it is through its films that this regional society “would set national standards of American identity, as the attitudes and styles of Southern California were exported via the film industry to the rest of the nation.” It fell to Southern California, in short, to create what Starr calls “the collective daydream of America.” Constrained by the time limits he defines for this book, Starr deals only with the earliest pioneers in the industry, such as directors D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett, and C.B. De Mille, producers Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor, and movie stars Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. But all these stories reveal the surprising fact of the minority immigrant origins of the industry responsible for America’s collective “daydream.”

Starr need not have stopped in the 1920’s. My earlier reference to Frank Capra was partly to acknowledge that, as film critic Richard Corliss put it in his essay on the cinema for the special “immigrants” issue of Time, “American cinema is truly an immigrant art form, made by immigrants for immigrants.” Some of our most powerful, mythic stories about the meanings of American experience are gifts from grateful immigrants, films like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Fred Zimmerman’s High Noon (1953), and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967). Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the few current films taking the “new immigration” as their dramatic subject matter are often created by immigrants—films like Wayne Wang’s Dim Sum (1985) and Louis Malle’s Alamo Bay (1985), or by native-born directors only a generation or so separated from the immigrant experience, such as Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson (1984) and Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983).

There is a certain irony in all this, an irony akin to the dilemma Starr identifies in Lummis'”Mission Myth” about California. This influx of new immigrants and the beginnings of a cinema “daydream” based upon their experiences are taking place at exactly the same time that social critics like Daniel Yankelovich (New Rules, 1981), Christopher Lasch (The Minimal Self, 1984), Robert Bellah, et al. (Habits of the Heart, 1985), and others are trying to explain middle-class America’s “identity crisis” (perhaps a “dream crisis”) and account for the seeming abandonment or radical redefinition of older notions of “success” and other aspects of the traditional “American dream.”

Clearly, the new immigrants are enacting the traditional version of the dream, which forces one to ask: Who is adopting the mistaken strategy here? Are the immigrants hopelessly playing out a misleading “daydream”? Or is the American middle class making the fatal mistake of withdrawing from the public culture of shared (and, yes, disputed) symbols and stories and retreating to highly privatized worlds incapable of sustaining a personal ethic, much less a social one?

Both the recent films and the social critics I mentioned earlier explore these questions in some interesting ways I shall not recount here. My point is simply this: that it is up to those who “mint and market” (as Richard John Neuhaus says) the symbolic stories and social metaphors of the American experiment to address seriously the experiences of the new immigrants and to offer some insights into ways these newcomers reconcile their traditional home worlds and their lives in the American public culture.

These stories, the new American “collective” (day)dream, can be an important force in the revitalization of American society. The wisdom and truths that will emerge from these stories will likely confirm neither the naive optimism of some new immigrants nor the deadly pessimism of some social critics. Certainly, what will emerge will be a more complex story about America, one that must attempt to counter the racism and violence that seem to have greeted so many earlier immigrants. Sometimes in the dialectic between the America of fact and the America of imagination, to expand Starr’s perspective, it is up to the imagination to instruct the reality.


[Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era, by Kevin Starr (New York: Oxford University Press) $19.95]