The place I've called home for the past year or so is a motel just off Route 1 as it heads down the Pacific coast from Santa Cruz to Watsonville. Late on the night of the earthquake a friend called me from her home near Carmel, an hour's drive south, to tell me what had happened. It was early the next day with me, since I was in southern Ireland, having just buried my mother. God was having a busy month of it. Aside from Hurricane Hugo and the earthquake, he had found time to direct a few cows into the path of a train carrying pilgrims to a shrine in County Clare.
It was hard to get news of the earthquake's damage directly from my motel, but secondhand reports indicated that it was still standing. When I got back some weeks later, the kind Dutch ladies who live next door had cleaned everything up. In my kitchen there was a bucket full of broken crockery and the remains of Robespierre's head. I had had plaster of Paris bas-reliefs of Robespierre and Saint-Just hanging on the wall. At a shock of 7.1 on the Richter scale, Robespierre, who believed in the Supreme Being, plunged from the wall. Saint-Just, who probably agreed with Fouche that the words "Death is nothing but eternal sleep" should be posted at the gates of all French cemeteries, dropped too, but stayed in one piece. I could have applied for federal emergency funds to buy a couple of teacups and a new Robespierre, but it didn't seem worth the trouble. Around the motel, residential and catering to the lower end of the income scale, the fear was that the owner would himself use disaster-relief to upscale the place and throw everyone into the street.
A couple of days later I went for a walk around Watsonville with my friend Frank Bardacke, who's lived there for 17 years. Watsonville, about 18 miles from the epicenter in the Santa Cruz Mountains, had been hit the worst. Of 765 buildings destroyed in Santa Cruz County, 333 were in Watsonville, as were 533 of the 2,438 buildings countywide suffering major damage. We walked along Lincoln Street and at first all seemed well, aside from tumbled chimneys announcing the folly of building with brick in California. Then there'd be a swath of disaster: boarded-up windows, porches askew, red tags on the front doors indicating that the places were done for.
Watsonville is a Third World town, meaning it is cheaply built, and though the price of a handful of nails would have meant foundation posts securely toenailed in, a lot of the poorer houses had been just resting on their pier blocks until the tremors pushed them off.
Prospect, where Frank and his family live, is a nice-looking street, typically working-class in a mostly working-class farm town--single-story wood houses, a bit of lawn out front. On Frank's block the earthquake knocked out five houses, which had nine Mexican families living in them. By such a count you can reckon that Watsonville's population, officially 30,000, is probably almost twice that number. Throughout the town, garages behind Victorian houses had held families paying $400 a month to sleep among vermin, getting their power from the main building, into which more families were crammed. So as the earth shook and the shacks fell, some of the working poor upgraded from garage slum to emergency quarters under canvas. Even the local newspaper, the Register-Pajaronian, felt emboldened to concede that the earthquake, a "natural" disaster, had merely highlighted the entirely human disaster of a town that, by the laws of motion of late American capitalism, had long ceased to provide affordable housing for the people from whose labor the wealth of the town derived. When the tremors stopped, people saw that the earthquake had posed more strongly than ever the question, what sort of a town is Watsonville to be?
Two hours south of San Francisco, Watsonville is at the head of the most productive vegetable-growing area in the world. Between May and October, the area produces about 80% of the fresh vegetables consumed in the United States. But for the past 10 years, as the seasons rolled by, economic pressures have been building toward upheaval just as surely as the tectonic plates grinding against each other along the fault lines through the Santa Cruz Mountains.
In the old days, a decade ago, Watsonville faced south down to the fields of the Salinas Valley whence came truckloads of vegetables into the frozen-food plants. Today, as Frank wrote in the excellent local bilingual monthly El Andar, it lives in the shadow of San Jose, one hour north: "Computer production has crept over Highway 17 into Scotts Valley, and in the last 10 years housing projects have shot up on the north side of town, peopled by folks who come to Watsonville to sleep by the Pacific Ocean, leaving low-paid computer assembly workers to live in the smog and drink the polluted water of what was once the Santa Clara Valley. We now seem to sit not at the head of the Salinas Valley but at the foot of the Valley of Silicon."