Certain books put me in mind of Le Guin’s woke utopians, people who, having seen the cost of their privilege, find they must refuse it. City of Inmates (2017) — Kelly Lytle Hernández’s incisive and meticulously researched study of the transformation of Los Angeles from a small group of Native American communities in the 18th century into an “Aryan city of the sun” in the 20th — is just such a book. Without being tendentious or preachy, it exposes the vast structural inequalities that undergird our society. What it inspires us to do is not to walk away, but to amend and resist.
Lytle Hernández connects the dots between Los Angeles’s early extermination, deportation, and caging practices and the fusion of immigration control with criminal justice. She does this so deftly that our current draconian historical situation seems more of a natural conclusion than an aberration.
City of Inmates helps us to understand the deep roots of the impulse to cage that has permeated our national DNA. Long before the War on Drugs, long before the phrase “carceral state” became a part of everyday speech for even minimally socially aware undergraduates, the urge to remove, lock-up, and even kill unwanted people — Mexican migrants, tramps, the Chinese, and African Americans — has been a central motif of white settler triumph.
But in City of Inmates, Lytle Hernández is not just using Los Angeles as a way to explore some larger national drift. There is a specificity to the idea of Los Angeles here — a place white settlers dreamed could become “An Eden of Saxon homeseekers.” But the dream was just that, a dream, one that flew in the face of the actual history of the place, one that left no room for the people the settlers encountered while on their way to creating a national “white spot.”
In 1781, when the Spanish were looking to extend their domain into Alta California, no one really wanted to venture to the scrubby desert colony that became Los Angeles. And so volunteers were recruited from the people who were from the lowest (darkest and poorest) rungs of the Spanish casta system, enticed by offers of free land, seed, and herd animals. Consequently, 95 percent of the 44 original Spanish colonists were at least partly of Native or African descent. At its inception, Los Angeles was neither Saxon nor an Eden.
The new arrivals wasted little time in building a small mission, around which they erected a defensive stockade. Aggressive policing by the new colonists infuriated the local Tongva people, who had been here for a few thousand years. They responded by storming the stockade. The soldiers stopped that attack with their muskets, but the battle was far from over. When a Spanish soldier raped the wife of a Tongva tomyaar (chief), the Natives retaliated, and the Spanish, in turn, killed the tomyaar, reveling in their victory by decapitating the fallen warrior and “[impaling] his severed head on a pole in the stockade.”
Although some Natives continued to resist the intruders, others moved away. Those who remained found it “difficult to live either with or apart from the mission.” The Spanish soldiers stormed Native villages at will, sometimes raping women and even snatching children from their parents. Like the soldiers, the mission’s herds stomped freely across the land, trampling and eating the Tongva’s “edible landscape.” Native autonomy and Native practices were criminalized, making it impossible for the Tongva to thrive. They were forbidden from burning fields, riding horses without a permit, and refusing to work. In this way, a hierarchy was constructed that placed Indigenous people at the bottom of society.
In the end, starvation pressured many of the Tongva to seek protection and food from the mission that was responsible for their hunger. There, the priests demanded the Tongva dress, eat, worship, and work as they did. The sexes were segregated. All females over the age of eight, with the exception of women married by the Catholic church, were locked into dormitories at night. “In so doing,” Lytle Hernández explains, the priests “conducted the first experiment in human caging in Tongva territory.”
This is all a far cry from what I learned about the missions in an L.A. public school in the 1950s. My scary dragon of a teacher, who would on occasion drop the N-word in class in order to insult some white eight-year-old from Hancock Park, taught us about how the missions warmly welcomed the heathens, thus saving them from lives of savagery. Oh, and there was also something about the navel orange, which was lost on me at the time.
What the missions had left undone in terms of Native elimination was finally accomplished after the Mexican–American War (1846–’48), as white Americans pushed into the still very contested West, convinced of their right to do so by the idea of “Manifest Destiny” — a term casually coined by a New York journalist in 1845. But a newspaperman’s clever phrase was meager protection for Anglo-Americans determined to create a paradise for whites in a place inhabited by nonwhite people. The sorely tested settlers began to invent systems to control and annihilate those who challenged their vision of a paradise for white folks. To really achieve their Eden they needed a foothold. Imprisonment became the bedrock upon which this white Western fantasy was built. As Lytle Hernández explains:
The goal was to replace indigenous societies on the land. They also rapaciously consumed racialized labor while building structures of racial erasure, outlawing interracial marriages, adopting racially restrictive residency codes, and passing new immigration laws.
There is a central paradox embedded in these Aryan dreams. The new arrivals wanted help in the form of cheap labor — that is, racialized labor. What they did not want was to live cheek by jowl with these laborers, or to grant them citizenship. The solution to this problem comes in the form of caging.
After the Mexican–American War, in the newly acquired US town of Los Angeles, the transition team’s first act was to hire a jailer. His job was to oversee the county jail, “the only publicly owned building in Los Angeles.” Imprisonment became a way of removing Indians from the actual life of the city while utilizing their labor. Most were jailed for “public order” violations, which often simply meant being on the street:
Held every Monday morning at the Los Angeles County Jail, the auction of Natives was a spectacle […] As one city resident recalled, the local marshal would begin arresting Natives on drunk and vagrancy charges at sunset on Saturday evening. In the morning, the jailer tied the incarcerated Natives to a wood beam in front of the jail, allowing white employers to inspect and bid on them as convict laborers.
Incarcerated for vagrancy based “on the complaint of any reasonable citizen,” Tongva chain gangs built the streets of American Los Angeles. So “disproportionate was the imprisonment of Native men in Los Angeles that the common council described the jailer’s monthly salary as ‘[p]ayment for board[ing] Indians as city prisoners.’” On one June evening in 1860, the city marshal arrested 20 percent of the city’s Native population.
In less than 100 years, the Tongva were stripped of the land they had husbanded for millennia. Low birth rates, relocation, hunger, mistreatment, and disease (particularly in the city’s prisons) had decimated Los Angeles’s Native population and new sources of labor were needed. The story of the Tongva, then, is only the first chapter in long history of brutish labor practices in Los Angeles. The cognitive dissonance between a desire for cheap labor and a desire to keep citizenship as the sole property of white people created a procrustean problem for the city that was and is solved through jailing, deportation, the criminalization of race, and, finally, elimination.
Lytle Hernández does a superb job of leading the reader through the labyrinth of legal justifications for the growth and development of both mass incarceration and immigration control, and explains how immigration control becomes linked with crime and punishment. The 1892 Geary Act that required Chinese laborers to register with the federal government or “be subject to arrest” had the long-term effect of fusing “immigration control to crime and punishment in historically unprecedented and constitutionally questionable ways.” In 1929, the US Congress passed an Immigration Act that criminalized unlawful entry into the United States by Mexicans, making it a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and/or up to one year in prison. Within a year of its passage, US attorneys had prosecuted 7,001 cases of unlawful entry and by 1939 they had prosecuted more than 44,000 cases. In order to please agri-business, which needed Mexican labor, some hazy distinction was made between legal and illegal immigrants, thus allowing big farmers to hire migrants with the assurance that “upon the completion of [the] harvest these laborers return to their countries.”
And so, in wave after wave of moral panic occasioned by the unwanted (or only seasonally wanted) presence of “barbarous” others, the Los Angeles prison system expanded to house Native Tongva people, the Chinese, Mexicans migrants, white itinerants, and, eventually, African Americans. While migrants being held in deportation prisons were not prisoners “in the legal sense,” that would have been cold comfort to a Mexican or a Chinese national who was languishing in a disease-ridden and overcrowded jail cell, awaiting deportation.
But City of Inmates offers far more than a tale of victimized people. Lytle Hernández is a great storyteller and her book is richly infused with tales of resistance. The chapter “Scorpion’s Tale” tells the story of the magonistas, a group led by the charismatic Gramsci-style Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magón. In the early 20th century, he and his radical cadre fought the corrupt regime of Porfirio Díaz, which had allowed American business interests to decimate the prospects of Mexican farmers and workers. This action-packed tale of resistance and incarceration would make a fantastic TV series. It is as exciting as Narcos or Breaking Bad. True, there is no cocaine or blue meth, but there is a love affair, secret codes, revolutionary messages sewn into the hems of prison laundry, flights back and forth across the border, hideouts, gunfights, and, at its center, a cagey and brilliant revolutionary Robin Hood hounded by a genuine bad guy, Magón-hunter Enrique Creel. Particularly interesting is the way that Magón used his incarceration in the Los Angeles County Jail as a radical platform, “in the rebellious capital of Mexico de Afuera” (Mexico outside of Mexico), drawing crowds of adoring local followers who hoped to catch a glimpse of him when he appeared at his cell window. When any of the magonistas incarcerated in Los Angeles were taken from the jail for hearings, little girls would sprinkle rose petals at their feet.
The chapter “Justice for Sam Faulkner” might have been ripped from today’s headlines. It tells the story of the 1927 murder of an innocent 20-year-old African-American man in his sister’s home near Central Avenue at the hands of two rogue officers of the LAPD. In describing the African-American community’s outraged and highly organized reaction to this murder, Lytle Hernández adeptly shows us the direct through line from this story to the Watts Rebellion and Black Lives Matter. The tale of the two rogue cops — “the ‘Cossacks’ of Central Avenue” — who murdered Sam Faulkner and arrested, in just two years, “nearly one tenth of [L.A.’s] total black population,” ends with such a twist that I would need to issue a spoiler alert if I revealed it here.
Historian Richard Miller defines genocide as a “chain of destruction,” characterized by “ostracization, confiscation, concentration, and finally annihilation.” At rock-bottom, Kelly Lytle Hernández’s concise history of two centuries of imprisonment in Los Angeles is a book about genocide — the intentional elimination of groups of people through caging, theft, erasure, deportation, and death. In City of Inmates, we are asked to bear witness to what is surely a slow-motion holocaust. And the beat goes on.
Mary F. Corey is the author of The World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury. She teaches at UCLA.