Immigrants in California Have Had Tough Times Since the Early Days
by Patricia McBroom
Anti-immigrant hostility has been a central theme in California history since the days of the Gold Rush.
Lest people forget that history--and the fact that immigrants built the state--Arthur Quinn, professor of rhetoric, has a new book to remind them.
"We always see the new immigrant problem as unique," said Quinn, author of "The Rivals," published this month by Crown.
"We don't understand that this is one of the perennial issues in California history. Politics has been organized around these hatreds since Gold Rush Days."
Choosing early San Francisco as the setting for this new historical account, Quinn writes, "On a single San Francisco street corner (in 1855) you could find a greater diversity of humanity than anywhere else on the continent, with the possible exception of a Nantucket whaling dock."
As a newspaper article of the day described it, there were Chinese and "Maylays," Abyssinians, New Zealanders, "Feejee" sailors, Japanese, Russians, "Turks," Chileans, Peruvians, Mexicans, Germans, Italians, French, English, and Americans from every state in the union--a wilderness of humanity, says Quinn, that teetered constantly on the edge of chaos.
"No one had ever seen anything like this new city, unprecedented incongruity everywhere one looked....Even (cool customers) would be temporarily disoriented by it, repulsed and invigorated all at once, staggered by a chaotic vitality that defied comprehension," writes Quinn.
But this vitality was underlaid by a vicious kind of racism that could erupt in the most violent episodes. Moreover, the violence was often perpetrated by so-called "civil authorities" upon new groups of immigrants.
As early as 1849, a quasi-military American police force in San Francisco, called the Hounds, went after Chilean immigrants, rampaging through their tents and shanties one night, beating anyone who spoke Spanish.
Economic competition lay behind this mob rampage, a competition that the Americans were determined to win, and win they did. Those Chileans who survived the violence departed from the city, never to return.
Although anti-immigrant hostility has erupted in other ports of entry such as New York, the way it has been released in California is different, said Quinn.
"Here it takes over the government," said Quinn. "Civil society here was new and weak. People didn't come here to set up a society; they came to make quick money."
As a result, says Quinn, "Political opportunists could control the state to a degree not achieved in more established states."
When the Chilean "threat" had been reduced, public hostility in San Francisco turned on Australians who were entering by the thousands in 1851.
A few of these immigrants were former convicts, but Californians, influenced by newspaper articles in the Alta California, believed the entire group to be "transported felons of Great Britain."
Public passion turned into mob rule and the Committee of Vigilance was born. Composed primarily of businessmen, the committee took the law and the city into its own hands.
It became judge and executioner, hanging people without trial. Its patrols met ships and turned back undesirable immigrants, especially from Australia.
California was also fertile ground for the Know-Nothing crusade of the mid-1850s, an anti-Catholic movement aimed at Irish and German immigrants.
It was the only state in the union to elect a Know-Nothing governor (J. Neely Johnson), but the movement took an even more threatening form in San Francisco.
Two years into a serious economic depression, the city was ripe for radicalism of the fascist variety, and in 1856 the Committee of Vigilance was reborn. It succeeded in driving out the Irish politicians and smashing the working-class Democrats in San Francisco.
"Each generation of Californians is dominated by a new group of immigrants who become the scapegoats for the old group," said Quinn.
The danger comes when people begin to believe what they say.
"The moment you begin to think that this problem is somehow unprecedented--that crime or immigration is the worst it's ever been, at that moment the solutions begin to look appalling...like the vigilante movement of 1856," he said.