What drove me to write the 1924 romance novel Lillian in the Doorway?
I won’t talk of the progression of interests that brought me to write about women living in boardinghouses far from home, hoping to find love. Each woman had left home for a reason: gangsters, grief, family demands, or family expectations. Why I wanted to explore living in a Basque boardinghouse where the past collides with the present is also a story for another time.
What brought these single women to the orange ranches? Besides escape and the dreams of a better future. A job of course. In 2013 I read an OC Weekly article where I shouted EUREKA! Perfect. My boardinghouse women would be Americaization teachers.
The Lost Mexicans of the Bastanchury Ranch was the article title. These first few lines drew that shout from me.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Kelly had worked as an Americanization teacher in the citrus camps of Orange County, tasked with schooling Mexican immigrants in the art of good citizenship. During the day, she taught women how to sew and cook American meals like casseroles and pies; at night, the Michigan native recited basic English phrases before audiences of men so that they could use them at work
These words supported various scenes when my Lillian in the Doorway characters talked about their work. In this first book, I show Lillian leaving the shed where she teaches. Except for a brief encounter with Mexican ranch kids, we don’t actually see Lillian teach. That will offer fresh opportunities for the other three books in the series. Since Lillian was an opinionated woman, I had more fun with her scathing remarks about the students, teachers, and the program goals. And in showing her friendship with Maria.
The large ranches in the north Orange County area, beginning in the late 1800s, needed workers. Ranch owners brought hundreds from Mexico. After a time, the Americanization teachers taught them American culture, clearly not for assimilation, but undoubtedly to make the white community more comfortable. The Mexican children attended a different school than their white and Basque counterparts.
Again I did much research and much consideration on how much of the Americanization philosophy to include in the story. I knew the focus had to remain on the romance between Lillian and Jens. Still that romance was nurtured and deve loped through her job.
Although the Americanization classes continued through the early 30s, they ended for an appalling reason. My series stops before the historical event, so it’s not addressed in Lillian in the Doorway and probably won’t be in the other three books.
From the same article …
Sometime that spring, new management and a consortium of white business, political and civic leaders went to the Ranch’s schoolhouse and told the Mexicans they had to leave. “The Americanization centers in which these people had been taught how to buy homes and make themselves a part of the American community,” Mackey wrote 18 years later, “were now used for calling together assemblages in which county welfare workers explained to bewildered audiences that their small jobs would now be taken over by the white men, that they were no longer needed nor wanted in these United States.”
Many were American citizens, but repatriated only because they had a Spanish last name. They were loaded on trains and dumped in Mexican provinces where they knew no one. Their children–born in the United States–did not even speak Spanish.
The stories of these ranch workers were recorded in the 1960s for an oral history project and archived at California State University at Fullerton. Several of the interviewees were Americanization teachers.
Lillian in the Doorway by Michelle Dutton is available on Amazon.