A People’s Guide to Orange County: Real People, Real Stories, and the Shaping of Local History

An unconventional guidebook to Orange County points to locations of forgotten history.

By Tryphena YeboahMarch 7, 2022

A People’s Guide to Orange County: Real People, Real Stories, and the Shaping of Local History

A People’s Guide to Orange County by Elaine Lewinnek, Gustavo Arellano, and Thuy Vo Dang. University of California Press. 256 pages.

ORANGE COUNTY, California: home to beaches, good weather, Disneyland, and dull suburban spaces. This county could have easily been called Grape, Celery, Walnut, or Lima Bean County, a tribute to the area’s major crops at the time it seceded from Los Angeles County, but boosters decided that the exotic image of oranges would sell the most real estate.

In A People’s Guide to Orange County, authors Elaine Lewinnek, Gustavo Arellano, and Thuy Vo Dang run the image-conscious region through a political and social lens. The result is both dismaying and encouraging.

This guidebook, which includes stories from immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ+ communities, is out to do more than boost political tourism. The authors thoughtfully unpack the power relations and exploitation behind this former white agrarian stronghold. Its strategic location, open space, fair weather, and political influence enabled new employment opportunities after World War II, especially for Orange County’s Indigenous and African American people. But the stories are complicated.

For instance, we get not only the founding story of Disneyland as “The Happiest Place on Earth” but also the stories of its first unplanned closure in 1963 after President Kennedy’s assassination, the corporation’s grooming policy, discrimination against LGBTQ+ cast members, and other generally unfair treatment:

By relying on part-time workers, Disney chipped away at those gains until Disney workers united in the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions and, in 2018, began publiciz­ing a survey revealing that three-quarters of Disney’s thirty thousand employees strug­gled with food insecurity and that 10 percent had been homeless in the last two years. In the early 2000s, while the Disney Corpora­tion’s revenue soared past $3 billion, more than half of park employees earned less than $12 an hour. Some slept in their cars or commuted more than two hours, unable to afford Orange County rents.

When we read about Centennial Park in Santa Ana, it is through the story of Orange County’s first gay pride parade, which was held at the park in 1989. Then we’re led to the corner of Sycamore and Fourth streets, where we learn about the county’s last known lynching: that of 25-year-old Francisco Torres, a migratory farm laborer dragged from jail in August 1892 and hanged from a telephone pole for demanding that his employer pay him in full. No one from the group of “prominent citizens” was arrested for the incident.

More than the story of a place, we’re shown the fabric of people’s lives and the physical and emotional violence endured. For example, we read about a Vietnamese shopkeeper who hung a portrait of the late communist leader Ho Chi Minh in his store in 1999. It was a painful reminder of a lost homeland for the refugee community, and it also enraged anticommunist emigrants. Thousands of Vietnamese Americans turned out with signs reading “Thank You, America” and “We need Freedom, Not Communism.”

“The mainstream media, more often than not, depicted the issue as fundamentally about free speech versus refugee trauma,” the authors write. “But what this protest became was a theater for the negotiation of a community’s identity and belonging in the United States. In the process of the protest, Vietnamese Americans laid claims to their new homeland on a scale that had never been seen before.”

Later, at the Islamic Center of Santa Ana, we glimpse #TacoTrucksAtEveryMosque, a pop-up event serving free halal tacos to bring Muslim and Latinx communities together and register folks to vote.

The authors create a context that urges the reader to dwell with these woven stories, and I did just that: Orange County holds a special place in my heart because it was the first foreign soil I set foot on after leaving Ghana to pursue an MFA at Chapman University. When I took walks, I memorized street names and gazed at historic homes with their arched designs, wood sidings, and neoclassical details. My first chicken burrito was in Santa Ana; I can still taste the rich and juicy flavor of refried beans and Mexican rice. And in June 2020, I joined hundreds of people in protest against police brutality at the Plaza in the Old Towne Orange Historic District, California’s largest National Register District.

The guidebook grounds this work historically: we read about segregation and police brutality in Santa Ana’s radical history and the progressive activism that followed in Black Panther Park, and we learn that before 1940, mortuaries in Santa Ana refused to embalm African Americans. Throughout the guidebook, the writers note that Orange County is “a place where people have resisted segregation, struggled for public spaces, created vibrant youth cultures, and launched long-lasting movements for environmental justice and against police brutality.” These complexities are well recognized. By examining different cultural representations, labor movements, and spaces with contested diversity, the authors draw on a variety of disciplines to make a compelling argument about the county’s history.

And not all of it is grim. Parts are inspiring; other tales are delightfully quirky. The California phenomenon of Cambodian-owned doughnut shops started in Orange County in the late 1970s after the arrival of Southeast Asian refugees, among whom was Ted Ngoy, a groundskeeper and janitor. His first taste of a doughnut reminded him of a nom kong, a rice flour pastry from Cambodia, and he decided that this was a business venture he could learn. Within a few years, Ngoy had made it possible for other Cambodian Americans to lease or own shops. His was called Christy’s Donuts; over 20 shops across California bear the name today. Lewinnek, Arellano, and Vo Dang incorporate details of small business start-ups, detailing how these initiatives created job opportunities for specific groups of people, including their own families. With a combination of research and detailed personal accounts, the authors address lesser-known stories of original entrepreneurial ventures that have spanned decades and how the historical relationships of their distinct operations shifted specific industries.

Teachers will find insightful lesson plans to engage students with the historical, political, and cultural characteristics of their neighborhoods, and the book will help these students develop analytical skills as they’re exposed to the media’s different representations of Orange County.

The storytelling about places, people, forgotten histories, and movements of resistance in A People’s Guide to Orange County is exceptional and urges the reader to reimagine Orange County.


Tryphena Yeboah is the author of the chapbook A Mouthful of Home.

LARB Contributor

Tryphena Yeboah is the author of the chapbook A Mouthful of Home, selected by the New-Generation African Poets series. Her stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine and Commonwealth Writers, among others. She is a PhD student in English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.


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