Professor’s book explores Mexican-American roots

PULLMAN – Raised among the vast lemon orchards of Southern California, Jose Alamillo is one of many Mexican-Americans whose contrasting childhood memories include both the light aroma of spring lemon blossoms and the darker images of his father returning home at night, his body covered with black soot from lighting smudge pots amid the groves.

Now an assistant professor of Comparative Ethnic Studies at Washington State University, Alamillo incorporates such personal experiences growing up in an Anglo-dominated “company town” with an extensive body of research in a new book that explores how Mexican workers and their families gained the skills necessary to address overt discrimination and labor grievances, as well as lay the groundwork for the broader civil rights struggle of the late 20th Century.

Published by the University of Illinois Press, “Making Lemonade Out of Lemons, Mexican American Labor and Leisure in a California Town, 1880-1960” draws on numerous oral history interviews and an extensive review of citrus company records to explore how Mexican Americans in post-WWII Corona overcame low pay, segregated schooling, inadequate housing and racial discrimination by transforming their leisure activities into places where workers could voice grievances, gain leadership and organizational skills, and build community and cultural solidarity.

George J. Sanchez, author of “Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945,” has said Alamillo’s book “provides a penetrating look behind the ‘factories of the field’ that make up California’s agricultural industry.

“With labor leaders meeting at the makeshift baseball diamond, Alamillo brilliantly shows how athletic clubs, moviehouses, and ethnic bars were critical in shaping identities and local political action,” Sanchez said.

As with “Making Lemon Out of Lemons,” much of the focus of Alamillo’s scholarly research involves exploring how Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans have used culture, leisure, and sport to build community, construct gender and ethnic identities, forge cross-cultural relations and advance politically and economically in the United States.

“I have chosen to focus on “leisure” because past and present day struggles over leisure space have yet to be fully documented, especially among Mexican American working class communities, many of which continue to be plagued by declining public spaces, negative stereotypical portrayals in commercial media, lack of sport and recreational facilities, and heavily policed cultural and festival events,” said Alamillo.

“Mexican Americans waged protracted struggles over recreation and leisure spaces in an attempt to inscribe their own cultural meanings and declare ‘spaces of pleasure’ as their own. These forms of working class opposition can offer important lessons to public policy officials and community activists to meet the recreational needs of a growing Latino population in the United States,” he said.

Born in Cueva Grande, Zacatecas, Mexico, Alamillo migrated with his family to the nation’s largest lemon fruit ranch in California in 1977. His parents worked in lemon packinghouses and orchards year-round, which allowed him and his siblings to attend local public schools. At middle-school age, Alamillo took part in the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which encouraged minority students to seek a higher education.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology and communication studies from University of California, Santa Barbara, he attended the University of California Irvine, ultimately graduating with a doctorate from the Comparative Cultures Program.

Alamillo joined the faculty of the WSU Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies during the 1999-2000 school year and was promoted to associate professor earlier this year. He has worked with numerous community oral history projects, museum exhibitions, labor unions, immigrant rights groups, and social justice organizations and is a former co-chair of the Chicano/a-Latino/a Faculty and Staff Association (CLFSA) at WSU. “Making Lemonade Out of Lemons” is available through Amazon.com and other major booksellers.

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