Despite the presence of two competing stores across from one another on the main street of Santa Paula advertising Ropa Vaquera, the age of the hispanic cowboy is long gone. While one in three cowboys in the mid nineteenth century was Mexican, and more locally (where, of course, it was Mexico until 1848) the droughts of the 1860's decimated the great Southern California cattle herds and destroyed the viability of the vast Ranchos; now faux vaqueros are more likely to be seen, in their Sunday cowboy-best walking to church or, of course, driving a truck or car. While the ergonomics of riding the once emblematic horse undoubtedly played some role in developing the basics of cowboy clothing - denim jeans a checkered long sleeved snap-buttoned shirt and a brimmed felt or raffia straw hat - these icons of western wear have now also become the uniform of the field workers on the Oxnard Plain.

The area that is now Oxnard was originally developed by the Spanish in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s as the bread basket to feed the local Mission personnel, their Military support and the newly missionized Chumash at San Buenaventura. The bulk of these Native Americans came from the Mugu lagoon area which was the site of at least three Ventureno Chumash villages (Muwu, first amongst them). For the indigenous people, the lagoon represented the richest and most diverse food resource in the region. Avoiding the lagoon, the Spanish introduced the European cultivation of wheat and cattle ranching in the bordering grasslands.

In 1899, Henry Oxnard, owner of the The American Beet Sugar Company, began growing beet in the area and opened a processing plant. Demand for laborers followed the factory’s establishment and drew 1,000 Japanese farm workers to harvest the sugar beets and live in a tent-city near the fields. Poor working conditions, low wages, and exploitation by the contractors, led to a historic strike of the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) in 1903. It was the first large multi-ethnic agricultural labor strike in California. At the time, the JMLA comprised 500 Japanese and 200 Mexican workers and was representative of the ethnic mix of the field workers in the first decades of the twentieth century. There was a thriving Japantown along what is now Oxnard Boulevard.

The sugar beet harvest was seasonal work, Japanese laborers, referred to as buranke katsugi (blanket carriers) for moving camp to camp with their blankets, were contracted to other areas to pick fruit, dig potatoes, and harvest a variety of crops for the balance of the year. By the mid-1930s, Issei immigrants in Oxnard began their own vegetable production that was shipped to the Los Angeles market. By 1940, there were approximately 40 Japanese farms with 1,500 acres yielding a variety of produce, such as cauliflower, cabbage, celery, cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, peas, and carrots (California Japantowns).  A similar mix of agricultural production continues across the plain now augmented by strawberries, of which Oxnard is the world's largest producer.

The Japanese easily out numbered Mexicans in the early years of sugar beet production, but the Mexican revolution of 1910 prompted many Latinos to migrate north to California both to escape the violence and improve their economic situation. By the 1920s, Mexicans had become the predominant farm laborers in the region and remain so to this day. After 1942, when the Japanese were interned during WWII, Asians more or less disappeared from the fields replaced by Mexicans who also took their place as merchants along Oxnard Boulevard. Thus within a generation, the labor, business and cultural presence of the Japanese was almost obliterated in the area (Downtown Oxnard Historic Resources Survey Final Report).

Although there remains a small Japanese community in Oxnard, a Buddhist temple, several Japanese restaurants and still, one or two Japanese gardeners, there is no more Japantown. Just off Oxnard Boulevard, however, on A Street, John McMullen, the Japanese antiquarian, who lives in Ojai and for years did business out of Los Angeles, has located his remarkable store and warehouse of Japanese antiques. We have bought a number of pieces from him over the years.

Along with the removal of the Japanese, and with Pearl Harbor as the same root cause, the Oxnard area saw the development of the Naval Construction Battalion Center, Port Hueneme, the first of a series of military installations along the Ventura coast. The CBC was established to train, stage and supply the newly created Naval Construction Force "Seabees" responsible for shipping supplies and equipment and more than 200,000 men in support of the war effort. More construction supplies and equipment were shipped from Port Hueneme than from any other port in the United States. This base is now augmented by the 146th Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard located adjacent to the Point Mugu Naval Air Station. Their logistical mission is to provide global military airlift capability (primarily the Lockheed Martin turbo-prop C-130 Hercules) to a full spectrum of state and federal agencies.

This brief historical sketch goes some way in explaining several primary characteristics of early twenty first century Ventura: a plurality of Latino field, construction and service workers; a dominant agricultural sector and a skein of military installations, testing and and communications facilities knitted along the coast and coastal hills. When I set out to write this piece the main thing on my mind was to describe this latter phenomenon as a follow up to the investigation of civilian airliner overflight in Red Smudge. But scratch the surface around here and most likely you will end up with Cabrillo landing at Pt. Mugu in 1542, or the arrival of the Kelp Road voyagers who landed on Santa Rosa Island thirteen thousand years ago and became the first Californians (Hoop Dreams). In this case, it was the Japanese fish camp at Pt. Mugu (see Cabrillo, above) which started the unravelling. For it was the destruction of the camp that was the precursor to the military taking charge of both sides of Calleugas creek where once was, and may still be, some of the best fishing along the coast.

As early as 1884, portions of Calleguas Creek, which drains directly into the Mugu Lagoon from the Oxnard Plain, were channelized to accommodate farmers, who wanted to limit damage from the creek’s floodwaters. As such, the area around the lagoon became a sump for the surrounding agricultural lands (Wild and Free, Bowls). In the 1920’s the Pacific Coast Highway was extended north far enough for hunting and fishing enthusiasts to reach the Mugu Lagoon and many hunting clubs and fish camps  sprang up in the area.

In 1930, the Mugu Fish Camp was established as a collection of huts located on the sand spit between the lagoon and the Pacific Ocean, and included a bridge across the lagoon and roadway through the marsh connecting to the Pacific Coast Highway. By the mid-1930’s a small Japanese fishing community was also located near the bridge. Early in 1942, the open area around the lagoon became the focus for Seabee training, and slowly the military removed or built over the Fish Camp. By 1950, all civilian activity in the area ceased. ( From Spanish Land Grants to World War II : an overview of historic resources at the Naval Air Weapons Station, Point Mugu, California, Mark T. Swanson, Tucson, Ariz. : Statistical Research, 1994)

Today, when you stop to look over the wetlands at Mugu, there is a fence barring entry to this one last wild place on the Ventura coast sandwiched between the SeaBee firing range to the south and Port Hueneme to the north. Yesterday, driving back from Montecito (don't ask) we stopped at Carpinteria and threading our way through the town to avoid the street closures precipitated by the California Avocado Festival, parked close to the town beach. I was curious to explore the other patch of wetlands close to Ojai, the Carpinteria Salt Marsh, restored between 2004 and 2008 to "provide better wildlife habitat, opportunities for scientific research, and ways for the people to visit and learn about the coastal environment" according to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara, under whose auspices the restoration was undertaken.

While laudable, and certainly preferable to its being drained and developed, the fate of most of California's wetlands, it represented to me another step towards the commodification of the wildland. Certainly our experience of it was less than exhilerating: I still await the opportunity to enact a recurring daydream - to jump the fence at Mugu, and swim through the shallow estuary towards the sea and then lie exhausted on the dunes in primordial reverie.