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Different Dreamers: What It Means To Be a Californian Today

Illuminating Sunbeams in Santa Monica, California | Lynne Gilbert for Getty Images
Illuminating Sunbeams in Santa Monica, California | Lynne Gilbert for Getty Images | Lynne Gilbert for Getty Images
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The dream states of California were the subject of Kevin Starr’s majestic series of histories (seven books, collectively called “Americans and the California Dream). What was dreamed, he wrote, is myth, promise, and possibly redemption. Starr thought that he “could find in, with, and through California some measure of meaning,” but even he wondered if the dreaming would lead to a dead-end.

Historian Mike Davis, Starr’s old friend (and ideological opposite), once interpreted his dream of California as the “careless, libidinal adolescence” of the joyriding boy he had been on the streets of Fontana.[1] Davis lamented that his dream had been systematically denied to others.

Joan Didion described the freedom of vectorless motion that seemed to define California through the end of the 1960s. She thought it was a barren dreaming that Californians could not stop.

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park | National Park Service

Californians had dreamed exuberantly in the 1950s, in images of leisure, domestic order, and comfort that were broadcast to America as the California lifestyle. The California landscape was enlisted into the dream, not only the grander parts of nature, like Yosemite, but also the epic, mid-20th-century building projects that still have a collective heroism about them.

The abundance of California, above all, guaranteed that the dream would not end. Californians imagined there would always be more than enough sunshine, buildable land, and cheap water (when you found it and took it) to make the rest of the nation envious that these simple elements had been spun into the state’s golden dream. “More than enough” was always problematical, of course, but believing in more was a faith every Californian shared.

Californians today wonder what it means for them if that dream has ended. A majority (55 percent) of participants in a recent statewide poll said they no longer believe that work and luck will redeem the extravagant promises in what was sold to them as the California Dream. Nearly two-thirds of those polled would “advise young people in their communities to leave to find more opportunity” in some other part of the country. For the first time in more than a century, California is losing more population to other states than it gains by migration from the rest of America.[2] California, according to commentator Joe Mathews is “no longer a state of arrival.”[3]

Californians have reasons to be worried. A report by the California Natural Resources Agency on climate change forecasts that the next generation will endure a very different California: one plagued by water shortages, worsening wildfires, a rising sea level, intolerable summers, and declining agricultural productivity.

Golden State residents tend to use its compromised environment as a screen on which to project what they fear they can no longer find in California. Something in our dream has gone missing, and in our discontent, we finger suburban sprawl, pollution, traffic, and the presence of too many of us as the cause. We forget that the California Dream wasn’t marketed with a moral compass.

	Portrait of a prospector with his burros during the days of the gold rush, ca.1900 | University of Southern California. Libraries and California Historical Society (public domain)
Portrait of a prospector with his burros during the days of the gold rush, ca. 1900 | University of Southern California. Libraries and California Historical Society

Perhaps what we can no longer find is something we gave up in becoming Californian. A feeling for the land was abandoned by gold seekers along the trail in 1849. Shared loyalties to civic life were left behind in the suburban migration of the 1950s. And historical memory is abandoned today because remembering the past threatens to slow down the state’s regime of speed.

Earlier this year, in another poll of Californians that found them pessimistic, one question tried to determine if the qualities of California beyond the tangibles of economics and demographics – its places in memory and in the heart — were still what a Californian might dream of. The poll asked for a response to the statement “Overall, I’d rather live in California than anywhere else.” 70 percent of respondents said yes.

The optimistic essence of the golden dream endures, as it should, but the future of the state depends on Californians dreaming differently.

It will mean reimagining California as ordinary (because the commonplace is necessarily the place where we find hope after disillusionment). Kevin Starr argued that California was never America’s “great exception” – neither as a paradise nor as a hell – but always an instance in the American experience and essential to it. Or as novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner famously remarked that California is just “like the rest of America… — only more so.”

A different dreaming will better attune Californians to their state’s many dialects and vernaculars. The golden dream was prodigiously successful as a sales pitch but narratively impoverished. Today’s writers like Gustavo Arellano, Daniel Oliva, and Marisela Norte — among many more with different histories and memories — are populating California with stories we should be eager to hear.

They tell us something about dreaming of California. “My father?” Arellano wrote, “He fondly remembers the comfortable space in the trunk of a Chevy Bel Air that was his ticket to the American dream. In 1968, Dad left his dying village of Jomulquillo… to join his three older brothers in East Los Angeles.”[4] Arellano does not say what his father dreamed in the dark as he crossed the border. Perhaps it was only the possibility of something better than arid Jomulquillo. The younger Arellano does not think the dream his father followed was a mirage. He does not doubt that his father earned his California.

To dream differently will mean accepting our surroundings without environmental despair. Some of us see only epitaphs in the landscape, but the environmental historian Jenny Price believes that Californians should instead “cherish and sacralize” their familiar and utilitarian encounters with nature.[5] In each point of contact, anthropologist Kathleen Stewart argues, are the “sensations, expectations, daydreams … that catch people up in something that feels like something.”[6] Resilience — perhaps even a measure of sustainability — begins with a feeling for California.

Hotter droughts threaten California's trees | Nathan Stephenson, USGS (public domain)
Hotter droughts threaten California's trees | Nathan Stephenson, USGS

Ultimately, we’ll dream differently to possess a reconfigured sense of place that is spacious enough to dwell in all the Californias that are. We’ll achieve a perspective more encompassing than the ones allowed by nostalgia, forgetfulness, irony, or ahistorical rationalizing. We’ll have to give up mourning for the fantasy Californias that were.

What Californians need is a “long view” — the view that necessarily extends from the first immigrants of more than 13,000 years ago to the newly arrived Cambodians, Filipinos, and Koreans who live in my suburban neighborhood today.

Every generation of migrant Californians since 1849 had chased its own dream deliriously or rapaciously or foolishly. Sometimes the dream was consoling. It has been at times ennobling. Many of the dreams began with illusion and ended in regret. Hope-filled dreamers of California can awaken from the deceptions and disappointments of becoming Californian. They could become different dreamers.

Top Image: Illuminating Sunbeams in Santa Monica, California | Lynne Gilbert for Getty Images

[1]    Mark Dery, “Downsizing the Future: Beyond Blade Runner with Mike Davis,” 21C Magazine, 1995

[2]    Over the past two decades, California lost 1.8 million more residents than it gained from the rest of the country.

[3]    Sarah Rothbard, “The California Dream Has Become the California Struggle,” Zócalo Public Square, 14 January 2015

[4]    Gustavo Arellano, “My Did the Illegal Immigrant,” Los Angeles Times, 14 September 2008

[5]    Jenny Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” The Believer, Part 2, May 2006

[6]    Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 1.

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