#84 Sugartown: San Pedro, SugarBeets and Portuguese Fishermen

 

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The Song Sugartown is the 6th track on the Camper Van Beethoven album El Camino Real (2014).   This album is part of a two album series on California.  The first album La Costa Perdida(2013)   focused on Northern California while El Camino Real focuses on Southern California.   In particular El Camino Real celebrates the polyglot poly-cultural history of Southern California

The fictional Sugartown is a combination of the working class neighborhood of San Pedro and the early 20th century sugar beet plantations of Seal Beach and Los Alamitos.  San Pedro is situated at the mouth of the Los Angeles River and faces the massive Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach.  Seal Beach and Los Alamitos are on the mouth of the San Gabriel river to the southeast on the other side of the two ports.

Both cities are (or were) home to large and diverse immigrant communities.   San Pedro is now known for it’s Italian neighborhoods, but was also once home to large populations of Croatians -actually Dalmatians, Greeks, Portuguese and Irish.  The Dalmatians are perhaps the most interesting group as they settled here when California was still part of Spain.   I wanted to use the Dalmatians as the fishermen in the story but lines like “We Came from Portugal to fish the sea”  didn’t sound as good with Croatia, Dalmatia Brač, Hvar, Vis or Korčula substituted.   So the Portuguese got the focus.

Los Alamitos and the adjacent Seal Beach were the center of Southern California’s briefly thriving sugar beet industry.   The sugar beet farming and processing industry attracted a lot of immigrant labor.  When the sugar beet farming collapsed in the 1920’s one of the big owners John Bixby started leasing out land to immigrant farmers including many Japanese families (many later ended up in  Manzanar) further diversifying the population.

Finally Sugartown also makes reference to Crocket or as the locals in the North San Francisco bay call it “Sugar City.”    Crocket is most clearly distinguished by the big C&H (California and Hawaii) sugar processing plant that faces the Carquinez strait.  Interstate 80 is carried over the city by a massive flyover bridge hence the line in the song  “Stay up upon the bridge at sugar town  mind your business don’t come down.”

So essentially the story is this:  Portuguese fisherman come to California to fish the sea. The fishing dies out and the lucky ones get jobs at the sugar processing plants. Of course the sugar beets are not even grown locally anymore.  So they process sugar cane shipped from hawaii.   The unlucky resort to smuggling drugs  “sugar cane”  (probably heroin) using the local port and what’s left of their fishing fleet.

The sea is empty now

It’s all we had

So we sell sugar cane

God is our judge

This little area is so rich in history, I feel like I could have done a whole album just on this area.   The Portuguese began exploring this as far back as the 1540’s. The  Spanish used this as a regular port shortly after.  The Tongva-Gabrieleño had villages here for at least 8,000 years.  They were expert seafarers and traders.  They had ocean going canoes something of a rarity among the native populations.

The whole sugar beet boom involves various railroad and banking tycoons and some genuine 19th century  robber barons.  The aforementioned John Bixby deserves his own treatment.  Finally their is the fate of the Japanese americans who were forcibly relocated to Manzanar during WWII.  Most of them lost everything.

Sugartown

We come from Sugartown

At the river’s mouth

Nestled in soft green hills

A factory town

it comes from cross the sea

raw sugarcane

it comes in railroad cars

we make it pure

Dont you show your face in Sugartown

we dont need your kind around

if you think you’re better than we are

you can leave at anytime

Stay up upon the bridge at Sugartown

Mind your business dont come down

If you show your face in sugar town

You know what happen last time round

We cam to Sugartown from the old country

We came from Portugal to fish the sea

The sea is empty now, its all we have

So we sell sugar cane, God is our judge

Dont you show your face in Sugartown

we dont need your kind around

if you think you’re better than we are

you can leave at anytime

Stay up upon the bridge at Sugartown

Mind your business dont come down

If you show your face in sugar town

You know what happen last time round

 

 

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