Miroslava Chávez-García: Youth of Color and California’s Carceral State


mcg1Miroslava Chávez-García is professor in the Chicana & Chicano Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She is author of States of Delinquency: Race and Science in the Making of California’s Juvenile Justice System (University of California Press, 2012) and Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s to 1880s (University of Arizona Press, 2004). She is currently working on a history of migration, longing, courtship, and identity as told through 300 personal letters exchanged among family members in the 1960s across the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

Her article “Youth of Color and California’s Carceral State: The Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility” appears in the June 2015 special issue of the Journal of American History on “Historians and the Carceral State.”

Could you briefly describe your article?

My essay examines and analyzes the practices of the carceral state in early twentieth-century California as it impacted the lives of youth of color, namely Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans at the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility, earlier known as Whittier State School. Drawing on the latest ideologies of race, intelligence, heredity, and crime, and relying on leading thinkers and practitioners in the nascent fields of psychology, education, social work, and eugenics, state officials and scientific researchers implemented the latest tools and techniques—namely, intelligence testing and fieldwork—to understand and contain the sources of juvenile crime. In probing the juvenile inmates’ intelligence, heredity, and environment, state officials identified and labeled a generation of youths of color as “feebleminded delinquents” whose biology or race linked them to criminality. No matter that many of the inmates who took the intelligence tests or responded to the fieldwork had little command of English or received a poor education or no schooling at all; scientific beliefs held that low intelligence and related physical deficiencies resulted from inherited differences, not from cultural biases inherent in the testing process. To deal with “deviant” youths, state officials imprisoned them in state hospitals where they faced permanent care and sterilization. My essay argues that, in harnessing the power of scientific thought, authorities nurtured the emerging carceral state, giving rise to a complex, research-based criminal justice system.

mcg2How did you first become interested in this topic?

In all honesty, I did not set out to research and write about juvenile delinquency or the carceral state in California. In looking for a second book project, while completing my first on Mexican women in nineteenth-century California, I stumbled upon Whittier State School case histories at the California State Archives in Sacramento and was immediately hooked. As I am consistently drawn to projects that “recover” the experiences of socially, economically, and politically marginalized peoples, like that of Chicanas and Chicanos in the United States, the case histories provided the perfect window onto the lives of forgotten, misinterpreted, troubled, and, as I soon found out, abused young people of color who were caught up in the web of the emerging juvenile system in California. I had no idea that my early research—which eventually entailed looking at some 8,000 case files plus several hundred eugenics fieldworkers records, among many other richly detailed sources—would blossom into a larger study on the role of science and scientific research in containing “deviant” and “defective” bodies in the early twentieth century. Recent literature—including that found in the Journal of American History issue of June 2015—demonstrates that these early practices continued well into the twentieth century. Ultimately, for me, telling these young peoples’ stories of resistance and survival in the face of massive institutional repression and confinement has kept me committed to the work.

How does your topic fit into the larger history of the carceral state?

My work compliments the literature charting the emergence and expansion of the prison complex system in California in the era of mass incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s. These studies, including Ruthie Wilson Gilmore’s brilliant Golden Gulag, detail how the shifting, increasingly conservative, capitalist policies and politics of race, crime, and (sub)urbanization in the post-industrial period contributed to the imprisonment of an unprecedented and disproportionate number of people of color, specifically African Americans, in California and across the United States more broadly. My study reveals that the disproportionate confinement of people of color, in this case, young people of color, did not necessarily begin in the post-war period but, rather, had its origins in the inter-war years of the 1920s and 1930s with the use of science and scientific research in containing defective bodies. My work also shows that using science and scientific research to identify, predict, and suppress crime—today found in the fields of criminology, penology, crime mapping, and statistics—is not a new approach. Instead, a century ago, the use of science-based investigations was the latest innovation in the fight against rising deviance in an increasingly urbanized, industrialized, and ethnically and racially diverse society. Public leaders, prison officials, judges, lawyers, intellectuals, social workers, and other progressives viewed science—especially its use in the containment of criminals and the eradication of crime—as the cure for society’s ills.

During my research into the history of Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional, I met Frank Aguirre, pictured here, who was an inmate in the 1950s after his parents sent him there for "incorrigibility." An invaluable informant, Frank continues to call me and keep me connected to the human stories of the institution.

During my research into the history of Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional, I met Frank Aguirre, pictured here, who was an inmate in the 1950s after his parents sent him there for “incorrigibility.” An invaluable informant, Frank continues to call me and keep me connected to the human stories of the institution.

How can other historians best incorporate your work (and that of other historians of the carceral state) into their teaching?

Historians can use the history of the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility as well as that of similar institutions in a variety of ways. First, they can use it to teach their students about the use and abuses of science and scientific research, namely eugenics, in California and the United States more broadly. Students can learn about the ways in which scientific researchers and state authorities used the latest ideas about and ideologies of intelligence, heredity, crime, and race to identify, contain, and control a “deviant” population of young people of color. As students in college and high school, we often learn about Nazi Germany and the horrors of the holocaust in Europe, however, we know less about how Germans studied California’s early sterilization laws and incorporated them in their own designs to improve the (Aryan, white) race.

Second, historians can use this history to detail the ways in which young people of color challenged and resisted notions of race, intelligence, heredity, and crime. My work, along with that of many other scholars, lays out the patterns of collective as well as individual moments of resistance and the ways in which the young people sought to take control of their lives. As I found, some mounted successful escapes from the facility, others launched multi-ethnic and multi-racial riots, and a handful deceived the scientists as well as the staff during various phases of the scientific research. When Oscar K., for instance, an African American boy at Whittier State School, found himself unhappy working in the print shop, a training program coveted by many boys and reserved primarily for Euro-Americans, he dragged his feet, disregarded instructions, and invoked everyday forms of resistance to leave his post.[1] When the researcher, Mildred Covert learned that Oscar wanted out of the print shop and into the dining room, she asked him to explain. “Printing is lazy work,” he said, “because one sat down to it all day and he preferred to do work in which one exerted themselves a little more.” Staff misunderstood Oscar’s ploy, however. The print instructor had interpreted Oscar’s resistance as a sign of mental weakness. “Oscar did not have enough mentality to remain in the print shop,” the teacher stated. “He “[w]as inclined to be frivolous. [He] would not apply himself. Did not try, but wasted his time.” The disciplinarian at the school also misread Oscar’s motives. “A little more lazy than average for his race,” he said. Oscar’s tactics eventually worked: he was transferred to the dining room and kitchen, areas usually staffed by African American and Mexican American youths and likely boys he associated with more frequently than with their white counterparts.[2] Oscar K. was not alone in his efforts to resist institutional practices and, though a small feat in the face of the mounting carceral state in California, his efforts speak to the youths’ willingness to take charge of their present and future experiences in the face of insurmountable odds.

[1] My work draws upon James Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987).

[2] State of California, Bureau of Juvenile Research, Social Case History, “Family of Oscar K., No. 137, #3327 (Colored),” 7, Eugenics Record Office, American Philosophical Society Library (Philadelphia, Penn.).


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