Editor’s Note: Nicholas Belardes, a dual-ethnic Chicano writer based in San Luis Obispo, California, recently wrote in Boom California, a publication of University of California Press (edited by Romeo Guzmán and Carribean Fragoza) of his indoctrination as a student in a community seeped with multiple Confederate and Southern symbols, including mascots, school and street names, etc., while living in Bakersfield, California in the 1980s. Pulitzer-winning journalist Christopher Knight calls his essay “engaging” and notes its importance in understanding how Confederate monuments can be more dangerous when they are a part of a community’s infrastructure. Here, Nicholas explores how deep Confederate imagery has embedded within a portion of South Bakersfield’s urban landscape. He describes the scope of continued indoctrination by discussing how such markers become culturally invisible, and even ignored by communities, including TV news and newspapers. He also interviews a California historian about understanding and finding solutions to indoctrination in our Latino communities.
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — At first glance, one mostly Latino Southside Bakersfield community boxed in by wide city streets and tightly-packed one-story homes seems normal. Even in the 100-degree July heat, kids take to bikes or ride boards to the local skate park. They pass through their neighborhoods and don’t think twice about the names of the streets. This is their home, where many of the things surrounding them remain invisible: the gray of the sky’s polluted edges, the faded colors of homes, a tree dying on a corner. Even mountain ranges to the east and west are no more than shadows above the horizon.
These teens, like so many others, have learned to ignore the Confederate symbols around them. Even as some teens cruise around in cars, they don’t see street signs like Plantation Avenue or the Rebel mascot name adorning the local high school. Bored from the pandemic, they’re looking for love, laughing and singing to their loud car stereos.
These can be rough neighborhoods too. Late at night sometimes gunfire can be heard. A mid-July crime blotter reveals violence along the community’s northern edge: a recent assault and vehicle theft. Several blocks away, several burglaries and a homicide have been logged. This is a city with mean streets, Southern streets. But this is not the South. This is central California.
Nearly 350,000 Bakersfield inhabitants dwell in homes built upon an endless slab of asphalt and cement. Some live in parks and alleys. Others dwell on a riverbed slithering through the innerworks of the city, past a refinery no one complains about, though it belches grime into the air in the midnight hours. Altogether, this urban sprawl covers more than 150 square miles in the southern end of California’s San Joaquin Valley. This is a city of citrus, almonds, multi-billion-barrel oil fields, massive opioid addiction, labor and water wars, powdery alkaline earth filled with Valley Fever spores, pot-holed roads, and freeways that always seem to be under construction.
An oppressive political shadow drips onto the landscape, one seemingly intertwined with excessive smog and decaying apartment rentals. The power structure is Trump happy, a lust-filled fervor infects them, one that the unwary might attribute to some kind of Viagra for political xenophobia, powered and fueled by little elephant-shaped pills. The Republican base is increasingly challenged by a growing Latino population caught within the intersection of the Chicano and Immigration Reform movements, a majority-Latino citizenry who have one purpose in common: to seek a life free from oppressive ideologies spread by U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s allegiance to the Trump Administration.
McCarthy has plenty of allies embedded within the community: Black, white, and Latino Republicans, sympathetic teachers and business owners, a sea of oil roustabouts, an Army of right-wing dogmatic church pastors, God’s legion of anti-intellectual fundamentalist followers, Talk Radio shock jocks blathering propaganda—not to mention a Board of Supervisors who, when not begging for COVID-19 re-openings or caught gerrymandering, are helping imprison immigrant poets. The city’s mayor is powerless except as a devout ribbon-cutter, while any leftover Latino-hating politicians have declared the city a non-sanctuary for non-English speakers.
It’s a city filled to the brim and ready to explode. Whether at the hands of local police or area citizens, violence covers this landscape, from well-documented police brutality, and violent police responses to what should have been peaceful labor strikes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and a gangland of murder and drugs, violence has woven itself into the fabric of the people, its streets, and schools. This neighborhood, a mere slice of a city, is filled with hidden markers of war, enslavement, ships of death, slaughter, warriors, ideologically crooked military officers, racists, killers, and false Southern nobility.
The northern border of this Southside community is marked by Planz Road. To the west, this busy thoroughfare simply melts into the urban sprawl. Eastward it dead-ends at the Municipal Airport, where in the late Seventies it held an arcade and miniature golf course where Dad took me to play Space Invaders and Death Race for the first time. Chester Avenue cuts a southeasterly path, walling that side from what used to be a Black community with schools left poor from taxes funneled to white schools. That street can take you north of the river, past homeless who live along the Kern River, into Oildale, a hotbed for neo-Nazis and white supremacy, where it crosses Beardsley Avenue, a street filled with so much crime and drugs it doesn’t even show up on the blotter. Neither do its many swastikas spray-painted on doors and inked on necks. A preacher, who may or may not still operate a church at the end of the street, had once been imprisoned for beating a Black victim nearly to death.
Back in this Southside community, its western border is both a dangerous canal and H Street, two firm parallel lines, one solid, one liquid, both cut by the triangle of Planz Park and the same set of railroad tracks I talk about in my Boom California essay, where in the aftermath of a train versus car, a mob took to the streets to observe the crash, wondering what could have happened during that violent dusk night in ‘77. To the south of that community things start to feel weird. You notice a street sign. White Lane. Named for a prominent family, the street functions as a metaphor anymore. Anyone living in the area probably has no clue of its origins. They likely don’t care. Indoctrination makes you blind, turns your soul hard. You might defend these streets. No matter the color of your skin. No matter that the Confederate swords on the high school logo you wear on your chest are meant for you to speak a lie embedded in your community six decades ago.
One glance at a map and the horror really begins. You discover the entire area was a pre-planned 1950s-era white supremacist community. Snaking through like a series of pulsing, dying veins are a series of Confederate-themed streets from the Civil War era: Merrimac Avenue, Raider Drive, Rebel Court, Sumter Drive, Monitor Lane, Shenandoah Drive, Plantation Avenue, just to name a few.
After decades, some of the inhabitants of this area are now slowly awakening to the fact that the specters of such images aren’t pointing their guns, swords and cannons at a ghostly past, but at the Latino kids sleeping and dreaming in their beds.
Another horror begins once you realize the high school colors inside this geographically small area. You see them like a storm cloud. Dark gray-painted buildings are a fleet of Confederate ironclad warships heading out to the gloom of battle. You feel a needle chill that creeps into your very bloodstream. This is South High, “Home of the Rebels,” the blue and gray. An apocalyptic Lost Cause vision in what should be a progressive America, like some Trumpian nightmare washed over these streets, though not even borne of such a presidency.
Somehow slipped from 63 years in the past into the present, this racist imagery is no different in meaning than a Charlottesville killer wielding his car like an instrument of war, neo-Nazis clad in swastikas and cartoon frog t-shirts and carrying tiki torches meant to burn their own hatred into nightly news. Only in this case there’s no Pepe the Frog going from harmless to hate. None of this is innocent, good fun. The meaning here is real, is detrimental to a community’s soul, a complete cultural breakdown meant to indoctrinate kids of color and parents alike. The symbols, when taken for their hidden truths represent death, hate, an economy of chattel slavery, and rebellion against a nation to preserve their twisted self-declared blood rites. Stacked on that, these symbols represent a system in which untold millions of Africans were butchered, raped, lost at sea, lost in jungles, buried in sand, mass buried in dirt, their guts thrown to the scavenger dogs and gulls of continental seaports.
Dig deeper and you’ll find South High’s yearbook is the Merrimac, named after a Southern ironclad warship. Confederate swords on a shield mark the school’s logo while a cartoon re-drawing of its former military soldier still reeks of its military-style heritage I used to sketch in the ‘80s as a student there. On the school’s current website, students smile beautifully while wearing drab blue-and-gray athletic and cheer uniforms. They’re having the time of their lives while teachers of color pose with them. One blink of the eye and these smiles and faces can be misread as misshapen, warped negatives of Confederate ghosts. Another blink and you realize administrators at South High School and the Kern High School District have allowed these names, images, and symbols to remain embedded in neighborhoods. They continue to prop up a system of indoctrination that values a racist past over the lives of people of color. And they’re not alone. Better add administrators of Greenfield Unified School District to that list.
There’s not one, but two Confederate/Southern-themed schools in Bakersfield’s Southside. Near South High lies Plantation Elementary. Opened in 1962 during a spike in propaganda of Confederate and Southern-inspired monuments planted across America like the phallus of dead Confederate generals, the school snugly rests between White (Supremacist) Lane and Plantation Avenue. A beacon of death and enslavement like some fantastical Gone With the Wind movie prop, this school’s name represents a shadowy celebration of slavers whipping, raping, shooting and stabbing in order to maintain control over their chattel slave labor and preserve their self-imposed glorious white privilege. Like South High, this school is over 80 percent Latino. I always wonder if the worst of its teachers have joked that the schoolchildren, no matter their color, are their little slaves.
Local Media Dismissed White Elephant in Room
Since the 2017 violence in Charlottesville, activists and journalists alike have been identifying Confederate monuments, school names and mascot names across the U.S. and in California. Monuments started coming down, school names started to change, and mascots were tossed to the wind. After the death of George Floyd, Quartz Hill High School in Antelope Valley, California decided to put an end to its Confederate rebel mascot. Like South High in Bakersfield, they’d attempted a redrawing of the mascot. Their rancher logo, too reminiscent of a Confederate soldier, only drew more criticism. It was time to end the charade.
However, the elephant in the room continued to be invisible in Bakersfield. This begs the question of how widespread indoctrination can be, how it can turn racist imagery invisible, how drivers, joggers, TV reporters, walkers, bike-riders, school administrators, journalists, city and county workers, the mayor, cops, firefighters, mailmen, teachers, etc., are blind to it or silenced to the point that the racist imagery is no longer discussed openly, or at all. What does it take for people to be able to see it again, and possibly for the first time?
While Bakersfield journalists identified a highway marker and retold tales of Confederate glory in Bakersfield at the same time George Floyd protests were sweeping America, they refused to acknowledge South High, Plantation Elementary, and all of the community’s Southern and Confederate inspired street names. As recently as June 2020, Bakersfield newspaper journalist Robert Price, also reporting for television news station KGET, went so far as to suggest there were no Confederate-inspired monuments in Kern County.
“This seems, therefore, like an appropriate time to survey Confederate monuments in Kern County,” he wrote. “The list is short—and if we take the challenge literally, it is blank.”
He goes on to list a mountain named after a Confederate general (not any more of a monument than a Confederate-inspired street name) and a highway marker.
He then said, “We don’t have any Confederate statues to take down.”
On June 19, NPR affiliate in Fresno, California, Valley Public Radio (KVPR), finally broke the news to Bakersfield residents that Confederate monuments were in their midst. On June 22, CSUB professor and activist Gonzalo Santos emailed KVPR’s on-air segment to various city leaders, who he called “movers and shakers.”
They chose to neither move nor shake.
In a July 16 phone interview, Santos said he received a deafening silence in response to that email. “Our so-called leaders duck and hide,” he said, noting their standard response has been to ignore burning issues.
“They have been remiss for decades,” he added.
He went on to say about what he called negligent city leaders and their inaction thus far about Confederate and Southern plantation imagery in the city.
“The culture of accommodation is way past Anglo conformity. This is white supremacist conformity,” he explained.
Santos, however, said he still stands by his June 22 email, where he wrote: “Changing the ‘Rebel’ mascot and the name of ‘South’ High School, and while you are at it, the street names like ‘Plantation’ surrounding it, seems an adequate, safe, symbolically important, and non-expensive place to start. Resistance to this very modest proposal will only expose how truly entrenched the old way of thinking remains alive.”
Ema Sasic, a journalist at the same newspaper as Price, who reports on race and ethnicity, said she had been inspired by my Boom California essay and would be writing a related article. On July 8, before she published her piece, Pulitzer-winning journalist Christopher Knight published his commentary on South High, Plantation Elementary and Confederate monuments in the Los Angeles Times, suggesting that Confederate monuments like South High and Plantation Elementary were invasive to cityscapes, and detrimental to culture and education when other American schools in Arkansas and Mississippi were fighting segregation.
Sasic’s July 11 article “As South High School considers changing mascot, alumni look back on times surrounded by Confederate imagery” uses interviews with South High alumni to detail Confederate imagery in Bakersfield (Price also published a column on South High on the same day, claiming city leaders weren’t racist when naming streets and schools, but were merely romanticists of war).
The benefit of her article is the illumination of once-hidden voices She tackles the scope of the elephant in the room —that monuments to Confederate and Southern imagery have existed in Bakersfield for more than half a century— and that far more than a simple mascot change is needed to rid the city of its indoctrination of youth and citizenry into such symbols of hate and intolerance.
A Historian Speaks Out on Indoctrination
Dr. Oliver Rosales, historian and director of the Bakersfield College Social Justice Institute, says indoctrination happens at many levels. He says the problem must be remedied in part by understanding what happened in that Southside Bakersfield community prior to multiethnic families, especially right after the post-Okie migration of the early to the mid twentieth century.
Stories of indoctrination into Confederate and Southern imagery need to be understood and disseminated back to students in related coursework, he says, noting, “The omnipresence of whiteness and a sustained white racial imaginary in Bakersfield is powerful, historically accurate, and in need of further research.” He added there should especially be a “larger history of racial segregation in the specific geographical area surrounding South High School.”
He calls the naming of “Plantation” in Plantation Elementary especially “egregious,” suggesting that old school board minutes, and other policy level historical discussions surrounding the naming of that school in particular, should be mined to help shape the stories that can be taught in the region. Those stories currently being unearthed because of the Boom California essay, according to Rosales, begin to undercover the ways that whiteness and Lost Cause ideology came to be embedded in the San Joaquin Valley.
County demographics continue to transform California’s southern Central Valley, according to Rosales. New waves of Mexican immigrants increasingly mean Bakersfield will have to grapple with its historical identity, especially how its history is represented, including its school names.
“The racial segregation of children, both through de facto and de jure means, in my mind can’t be separated from a larger discussion of how children are racialized by the school system,” he said.
Historians, according to Rosales, have only just begun to highlight how “people of color were blocked from the more progressive opportunities afforded to white residents in Bakersfield associated with urban renewal/development.”
Rosales, like many others now speaking out, also called for change to the area’s inspired by white, Southern fantasies and Confederate names. Countering South High administration’s recent PR stunt announcing a committee regarding only a mascot change, Rosales calls for something more substantial within the community, suggesting that “removing monuments and renaming schools, mascots, and streets aligned with the Lost Cause ideology is a good start.”
At the same time, he said, “more concerted efforts and resources need to be put into teacher education, civics, and how the history of slavery, the black freedom struggle, and the larger civil rights movement is taught at the K-12 level. Students shouldn’t have to wait until college to learn about this history with nuance and scholarly expertise. It should start much earlier. And given that our region has comparatively low educational attainment rates respecting higher education, doing so becomes all the more imperative.”
Nicholas Belardes is a California-based writer and former ABC news managing editor. You can find more about his nonfiction and fiction at nicholasbelardes.com. He’s on Twitter @nickbelardes.
Wow. What a stunningly irresponsible misrepresentation of what I wrote in my June 20 and July 12 columns. You seem to suggest that I was somehow defending the status quo, past and present, and downplaying or dismissing Kern County’s past Confederate sympathies, when in fact I was bringing it to the community’s attention in all its heinous glory — possibly for the first time since the late, great local historian Harland Boyd did so with a couple of fine books in the 1960s and ’70s. The comments I received after publication of those columns, both pro and con, support that understanding of my position. Only you seem to have missed the point.
Exactly which Bakersfield journalists, and when, “refused to acknowledge” the imagery at South High, Plantation Elementary, etc.? Nice loaded phrase. Not me and not my colleague Ema Sasic. A refusal must follow an invitation of some sort. I researched the subject and wrote about it without prompting or prodding. Ema’s discussion about the neighborhood was especially good. Then you say I went “so far as to suggest there were no Confederate-inspired monuments in Kern County.” The rest of the headline on KGET.com, which you somehow omitted, reads, “unless you count these.” Because, as you surely know, there are no Confederate monuments in the traditional sense, i.e., prominent statutes, sculptures, etc. I discuss Mount Breckenridge, named for the similarly spelled Confederate secretary of war, CSA flag-marked Confederate graves in Union Cemetery, and the Jefferson Davis road marker at the Kern County Museum, which, as you note, the L.A.Times wrote about in some detail a few weeks later. Indeed, as you quote me, the list of “Confederate monuments in Kern County … is short — and if we take the challenge literally, it is blank.” Now, street names, school names — certainly those are unfortunate commemorations whose day has come.
Then you seem to suggest I am giving past city leaders a pass for naming streets and schools after Confederate people, places and battles because they were merely romanticists of war. While a certain romanticism has definitely attached itself to the Civil War, as I noted, you must have read past this paragraph: “All quaintly romantic if Johnny Reb did indeed simply represent freedom from oppression and subjugation … (instead of the fact that ) Southern industry and commerce rode on the backs of enslaved African-Americans, and often cruelly so.”
The fact is, in your radio interview with KVPR the same weekend my column appeared (I guess that’s what you mean when you say “KVPR finally broke the news”), you express many of the same thoughts 1972 South grad Theresa Souers expressed to me in my July 12 column, “The pageantry was nice when South High students were innocent and ignorant.” She told me, “At the time when we were singing ‘Dixie’ and waving the flag, it was fun. I loved the tradition and the costumes and the whole thing about the South. But I was totally ignorant about slavery. Ignorant innocence, I guess you’d call it.” You had much the same experience, didn’t you?
I don’t why it’s inconvenient to you that we seem to have reached many of the same conclusions. I don’t why you feel the need to inaccurately portray me as some kind of apologist for America’s racist, wrong-headed past. But it’s offensive and, from an ethical standpoint, troubling. Again, only you seem to have reached this erroneous conclusion.