This will go down as the year that the old Orange County — the one of perfect tract homes and homophobic megachurches and angry conservatives — finally died.
The place that has caused so much grief to the rest of the United States, home of Richard Nixon, the Crystal Cathedral and Taco Bell, to name the most egregious antagonists, is wobbling toward irrelevance as a vibrant, multicultural and — dare I say — liberal land rises in its place. It’s been a long time coming, but this year has sparked national headlines about developments and trends unimaginable even a decade ago.
The future of democracy now hinges on four of Orange County’s congressional races, in districts once rock-ribbed red but now as purple as Barney the Dinosaur, all of which have a good chance of going Democratic in November. Homelessness is now everywhere in the suburbs of plenty, from well-kept parks in hoity-toity Foothill Ranch to Disneyland. Scandals inside the District Attorney’s office and Sheriff’s Department have forever tarnished OC’s well-crafted image as a place where the lawmen wear white hats and the only criminals are people who can’t afford to live here — because now, no one can!
This is the New Orange County — but the old guard isn’t going out without one last, bigoted fight. Wealthier cities passed anti-immigrant resolutions in 2018, even though they barely have any. Politicians don’t seem to care about solving a housing shortage so acute that the middle class continues to decamp to Nevada, Idaho, even the Inland Empire. Meanwhile, class warfare emerged between North County (where the older, more heavily minority cities are) and South OC, led mostly by wealthy immigrants who might not know English but don’t want African-Americans or Mexicans as neighbors.
The media is rightfully lapping up all of this, with almost weekly dispatches everywhere from CNN to The New York Times, “60 Minutes,” and beyond. Their shared thesis: You mean Orange County… isn’t Orange County anymore?
Yep. And it’s WONDERFUL.
IMAGE VS. REALITY
The United States still thinks of Orange County as it’s depicted in the long-running reality show “The Real Housewives of Orange County”: overwhelmingly white, fabulously rich, vainly obsessed with plastic surgery and all living along the coast.
It’s an image our leaders have meticulously kept up for well-nigh a century, and it still exists in places like Coto de Caza and Laguna Niguel and Newport Coast — places that are more akin to a narrative in “Westworld” than anything approaching reality.
But the fact is, Orange County’s bubble cracked long ago — it’s just in recent years that the rest of the U.S. bothered to notice.
Start with the demographics. As recently as 1990, whites made up 65 percent of OC’s population, while Latinos constituted 23 percent, Asians 10 percent and African-Americans a mere 2 percent. But whites became a minority in 2004; today, Census figures show whites make up only about 40 percent of the total population of the county, while Latinos make up 34 percent and Asians 21 percent. And African-Americans? Their population has grown to … 2.1 percent.
Demographics, more than anything, have led to the most unexpected development in OC: liberalism. The nation first got a sense that OC wasn’t its old, nasty self anymore in 2016, when Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the county — the first time Orange County, the place Reagan once said “all the good Republicans go to die,” had gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since FDR in 1936.
Nowadays, Republicans are just 2.8 percentage points ahead of Democrats in voter registration — 36.7 percent to 33.9 percent, with 24.9 percent registered with no party preference. This is a huge change from 1990, when the GOP enjoyed a 22-point registration lead over the Dems in OC.
That reality has progressives ready to harpoon white elephants. In January, about 20,000 women marched in downtown Santa Ana to protest everything Trump and cishet male — in other words, everything the old OC ever stood for. So many Democratic candidates filed to run in the 39th, 45th, 48th and 49th congressional districts to challenge long-time incumbents that two members of the old guard, Darrell Issa and Ed Royce, decided not to run for reelection, clearly reading the writing on the wall.
The possibility of a liberal OC inspired people like Jody Agius Vallejo to push for a new way of politics. By day, she’s a USC sociology professor who has made waves in academic circles for her research on OC’s Mexican-American middle class, a group long dismissed as sellouts by Chicano Studies types and anomalies by the rest of the world. The subject is personal to Vallejo: Her husband’s family includes pioneers of Southern California’s Latino supermarket scene.
But in 2018, Vallejo decided to get active on a personal level when the old Orange County reared its ugly head. In March, tiny Los Alamitos’ City Council announced it would not participate in California’s Values Act — the so-called sanctuary state bill. The measure forbids local law enforcement from automatically turning over to the feds anyone in jail who is undocumented.
Soon, cities from Huntington Beach to Aliso Viejo to Yorba Linda and others passed similar anti-immigrant measures — and in early April, Vallejo’s hometown of Fullerton seemed to be next.
“After Trump was elected, and it was clear that white nationalists would be influencing national policy,” Vallejo says, “I decided that I had to get involved at the local level.”
She spoke before the Fullerton City Council, along with dozens of other activists, who convinced council members not to pass an anti-sanctuary resolution. But that wasn’t enough for Vallejo. The morning after the council meeting, she went to get her hair done and noticed that she was sitting near Jennifer Fitzgerald, the Fullerton mayor who had pushed for the anti-sanctuary resolution. It was time for a civics and civility lesson
“I extended my hand, reintroduced myself, and told her that supporting the anti-sanctuary lawsuit would not make our city safer and that I was more than happy to discuss the data and research that I had provided to the council the night before that proved her argument to be wrong,” Vallejo now says. “I asked her if we could set a meeting, and she said no, that she was at the salon simply to get her hair done.”
Vallejo responded that she was a constituent of the mayor’s, so she needed to be heard. The professor’s forceful, polite pitch apparently stuck with Fitzgerald. “As I was getting my hair washed, she approached me on her way out of the salon,” Vallejo says, smiling. “She gave me her card, and in a conciliatory tone, said, ‘Here’s my email, send me your research.’ To which I replied, as I looked at our hairdresser, ‘If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that we both have great hair!’”
HOMELESSNESS BEGINS AT HOME
Inspiring people like Vallejo have pushed OC to a better place. But there’s still a lot of work left before it becomes a true progressive paradise.
An acute housing shortage led the Orange County Board of Supervisors in March to offer an extraordinary Declaration on Housing, an admission of sorts that the old OC was never equitable to begin with — and that it had to change now before all the young people depart for places where they can afford to live. “Orange County’s housing shortage threatens our ability to attract and retain a talented workforce, undermining Orange County’s long-term economic competitiveness,” the declaration stated.
That’s all that politicians have done, though: words. “Affordable housing” remains as dirty a term in the county as “Los Angeles.”
The rising rents and housing prices created a homelessness crisis that has freaked Orange County out about an issue in ways not seen since the days of the Cold War. Homelessness always existed in OC — but the rich cities dealt with it by dumping the destitute in poorer cities like Anaheim, Costa Mesa and especially Santa Ana, which just happens to be one of the most Mexican big cities in the United States.
In January, the county cleared out a tent city that had more than 1,000 residents on the banks of the Santa Ana River, within eyesight of the hundreds of thousands of daily commuters who pass by on the “Orange Crush,” the local nickname for the 5/57/22 freeways intersection. U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter ordered all Orange County cities to shoulder a part of the burden of housing the riverbed homeless, under penalty of lifting anti-camping laws so homeless could camp wherever they wanted.
The supervisors, all Republicans, offered to set up a temporary shelter at the old El Toro Marine Base, which has sat largely abandoned for 25 years but which Irvine wants to turn into a park that officials say will rival New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. (After hundreds of millions of dollars spent, its most prominent feature remains a giant orange hot-air balloon.) The shelter plan would have worked, too, if not for more than 1,000 protesters, overwhelmingly Chinese immigrants from Irvine, who chartered dozens of buses to take them to the Board of Supervisors building in Santa Ana. They chanted, held signs and made the supes quickly pull back their plan. To this day, no one — not politicians or the angry Chinese Irvinites — has offered an alternate solution.
It was a display of NIMBYism shocking in its nastiness, and proof that in the new OC, even immigrants can become white supremacists.
THE MOUSE, TRAPPED
Those are all last gasps, though — one step forward, two steps back, but then a shove from behind by people who want to keep moving Orange County kicking and screaming toward modernity. A great example is the unlikely revolution brewing at Disneyland. It’s experiencing record-breaking crowds thanks to a revamped California Adventure park, and next year will bring even more people with the opening of Star Wars Land.
But the Mouse is running scared. In November, Anaheim voters will decide whether to pass a living-wage ordinance for businesses that take subsidies from the city in the so-called Resort District. It’s the first of its kind in Orange County and was placed on the ballot thanks to the muscle of multiple Disneyland unions. They easily gathered 22,000 signatures in just two months, thanks largely to a report they released this spring that revealed the Magic Kingdom actually is a plantation economy, with overworked, underpaid workers. About 10 percent of Disneyland’s workers have been homeless at least once in the past year.
The living-wage ballot measure wouldn’t have gathered enough signatures even five years ago — that’s how much Orange County loves Disney. But now it counts as supporters people like Juan Marmolejo, who works for a local nonprofit that helps undocumented immigrants. Marmolejo is also a Disney annual passholder who frequents Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel, where the drinks come in tureens shaped like Hawaiian gods and are strong enough to wake up ol’ Walt himself from his mythical cryogenic sleep.
“It’s a union bar, OK?” Marmolejo told me as we shared something called a Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Rum. “Disney is all union — that’s what everyone forgets. But that’s why Disney needs to pay its fair share. I can love the Jungle Cruise and want a living wage for workers, can’t I?”
A Disnerd and a democratic socialist? That’s so New OC.
Young people like 31-year-old Marmolejo are behind another phenomenon changing the county: gentrification. Previously, young, creative people left Orange County for cooler places like Austin, Manhattan, even — gasp — Los Angeles. Now, native hipsters are staying while outsiders are moving in, pushing out working class Latinos in cities from Anaheim to Santa Ana — but in a modern-day OC twist, it’s mostly Asian-Americans and second-generation Latinos who are doing the gentrifying.
Santa Ana, in particular, offers a fascinating case study in modern-day OC. It’s the largest city in the United States with an all-Latino city council, one that has pushed for new development and even a light-rail line through Fourth Street, the historic core of Latino Orange County. Quinceañera shops and checking businesses once operated from the storefronts here; now, it’s sneaker stores and coffeehouses.
“My parents didn’t come to this country so I could be poor like them,” says Tien Pham, as he enjoyed an Old Fashioned at Playground DTSA (an acronym for downtown Santa Ana) on a weekday night. The 26-year-old child of Vietnamese immigrants grew up in Huntington Beach before moving to Fountain Valley while in middle school. But the racism he dealt with as a child still sticks in his mind.
“They called me a nip, a chink, a gook — all that bullshit,” Pham says. “But you just gotta get over that.”
While he likes Santa Ana, his favorite place to eat is LXSO, a high-end Vietnamese restaurant off Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach where the hip-hop is as loud as the flavors. “I like it to have all these white people look at a Vietnamese like me,” he cracks, “go into a Vietnamese restaurant in their ‘hood, and do it with pride, you know?”
TACO COMBINATION PLATE
Change is happening everywhere in Orange County — at City Hall, on school grounds, even in action sports (our best skater, Nyjah Huston, is African-American; our best MMA fighter, Tony Ferguson, is Mexican-American; last year’s U.S. Open of Surfing winner was Kanoa Igarashi of Huntington Beach). But the best indicator of the New OC may involve tacos.
Last year, Rida Hamida and Benjamin Vazquez started Taco Trucks at Every Mosque, which is exactly what it sounds like: A taco truck sets up at a mosque to offer scrumptious halal carne asada and chicken tacos in the name of Muslim and Latino unity.
They have served more than 30,000 tacos to more than 8,000 people and received a bevy of media attention — not just for the obvious buzzworthy pairing, but also because of where it started: Orange County?!
For Hamida and Vazquez, who grew up in Anaheim Hills and Santa Ana, respectively, it couldn’t have begun anywhere else.
“I knew as long as I was living in OC, it had to change ‘cause I didn’t feel like I belonged as a kid,” says Hamida, a Sacramento government worker who’s like a fairy godmother in Orange County progressive circles because she always appears at rallies in her pink hijab. “But when I grew up, I knew the only way it could get better was if I made the change I wanted to see. So I found people like me that wanted the same things, and we changed OC together.”
“Immigrants come, build and thrive,” says Vazquez, a high school history teacher who also helps to organize one of the largest Day of the Dead festivals in the United States. “Our networks are getting stronger.”
They’ve gotten requests to take Taco Trucks at Every Mosque across the United States. And what better ambassadors for the New Orange County? It’s a natural progression: The county’s face used to be Richard Nixon, then John Wayne (whose kids are all half-Latino, dontcha know — even The Duke knew where OC was headed). But with Hamida and Vazquez now spreading the good news, Orange County can serve as proof of hope for the melting pot that is the future of the U.S.
Because if OC can change for the better, then anywhere can.