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The Land Rights Battles That Created Today's Orange County

A man looks out of his car among farming trucks and other equipment.
Masaru Tanaka on the Tanaka farm, April 1931. | Courtesy of the Tanaka family
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"A People’s Guide to Orange County" is an alternative tour guide that documents sites of oppression, resistance, struggle and transformation in Orange County, California. The following series of stories explore how land rights shaped Orange County.

The median home price in Orange County just reached $1.3 million, up 27% from a decade ago. Over the last century, people whose families had access to southern California home ownership gained a distinct advantage. The racial wealth gap has many causes, including disparate rates of education and employment, but access to homeownership is one of the leading explanations of why the average white household has eight times the wealth of the average African American family and five times the wealth of the average Latinx family. It's about historic access to land.

Who owns land in Orange County has long been tied to who gains wealth. During the agricultural era, land meant jobs and livelihoods. After suburbanization, land contributed to generational wealth; neighborhood access to schools, parks, and leisure spaces; social and professional networks, and more. Yet access to land ownership has never been equal. Racist laws and policies, disparities in who has access to credit lending or legal resources, and sometimes outright violence has determined who gets to own land and benefit from land ownership.

A special "Tending Nature" episode highlighting efforts to preserve traditional practices for future generations. Watch now.
Indigenous Land Stewardship

The longtime homeland to the Tongva (sometimes called Gabrieliño) and Acjachemen (Juaneño) nations, Orange County has been diverse for thousands of years. Northern Orange County is part of Tovaangar, Tongva land, while the Acjachemen nation is centered on San Juan Capistrano in South County. In the middle, at the mouth of the Santa Ana River, the large Indigenous city of Genga was a multilingual space shared by Tongva and Acjachemen people.

Spanish conquest after 1769 brought cattle that disrupted Indigenous ecologies along the coast, pressuring some Indigenous people into unwaged labor in the missions. The Spanish royal government claimed all the land, and, to encourage Spanish settlement and reward veterans, the government gifted enormous land grants to retired soldiers. Rancho los Nietos, stretching from present-day Whittier to the Santa Ana River, is today 18 different towns and more than 300,000 acres: the largest of the many large Spanish land grants across California. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexican land grants were only slightly smaller, often the size of present-day cities, creating a pattern of ongoing disparities between landowners and landworkers, rich and poor.

Explore some of the spaces in Orange County shaped by land rights. Click on the starred map points to read more in-depth stories.

U.S. conquest in 1848 brought new land commission policies challenging the terms of those Spanish and Mexican land grants, forcing rancho owners to defend their land titles in costly court cases. Anglo squatters, new taxes, lack of access to capital and a series of devastating floods interspersed with drought in the 1860s meant that most of Orange County's land passed from Indigenous and Mexican owners during the late 1800s. Anglo owners consolidated the Spanish and Mexican ranchos into enormous holdings, especially in South County, which did not subdivide into suburbia until the late 1960s and 1970s, when the Irvine and Mission Viejo companies began to develop their namesake cities as masterplanned communities that drew national attention (the founder of the latter, Don Bren, would go on to become the sole owner of the former). In contrast, the swampier land of northern Orange County had more modest-sized farms that began shifting to suburban development in the 1920s, creating a more varied landscape than south county.

Agrarian Orange County had a segregated diversity, with workers' housing near owners' housing across the county. The people who worked the land were, generally, not the ones who held title to the land. Suburban Orange County attempted to enforce greater segregation through housing covenants, redlining and occasional violence, but people of color have resisted in creative ways. In both eras, capitalism has shaped this county, prioritizing privatization over treating land as a public good.

Across Southern California, people of color faced a double dispossession: they were pushed off the land and pushed out of the stories we tell about that land. This map begins to fill in some of those too-often-erased stories.

To learn more: Lewinnek, Elaine, Gustavo Arellano, and Thuy Vo Dang. A People's Guide to Orange County. University of California Press, 2022.

Explore all the stories from "A People's Guide to Orange County."

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