Summer Reading: Gustavo Arellano

Gustavo Arellano

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Kai Ryssdal: There's a certain something about Southern California. There has been for a long time now. Today on our summer book series, commentator Gustavo Arellano and a historical look at popular perceptions of this part of the country.


Gustavo Arellano: It's almost 65 years old. Yet, "Southern California: An Island on the Land" is far from dated. In fact, it remains the best guidebook to our twisted, mysterious paradise ever written, and one I will read for the fifth time this summer.

Its author, Carey McWilliams, is best known nationally as a longtime editor of The Nation Magazine. But as a young man, McWilliams was a crusading journalist in California, and "Southern California," the book, was a regional memoir of sorts, written just a couple of years before he left for the East Coast.

In the book, McWilliams describes in marvelous prose a Southern California that remains, even decades after his writings: The numerous religious movements, the outstanding talent of boosters to self-mythologize, the skeletons in our closet scratching to get out and our eternal distrust of Mexicans. The observations make the title of his biography, "American Prophet," more fact than bombast.

One passage, in particular, rings truer now than ever before. In a chapter on Southern California's massive citrus industry, he recalled how the power structure in Orange County reacted when Mexican orange pickers tried to unionize. Roundups, deportations, public demonizing -- sound familiar?

McWilliams wrote he was astonished, "in discovering how quickly social power could crystallize into an expression of arrogant brutality in these lovely, seemingly placid, outwardly Christian communities."

"Southern California: An Island on the Land" encapsulates our legendary sunshine -- its beauty, its danger, its everything.

Ryssdal: Gustavo Arellano writes the syndicated column "Ask a Mexican." Tell us what you're reading this summer. Go ahead and post those recommendations and reviews in a comment.

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