Matt Garcia is a professor of History and Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College and the author of A World of Its Own: Race, Labor, and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970 (2001) and From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (2012).
In my time knowing Mike Davis, he often exhibited a healthy dose of suspicion towards, if not outright contempt for the Ivory Tower, especially for those he called “effete” intellectuals.
I met him in the last month of my fourth year at UC Berkeley. He was a guest in a California geography class taught by the great Dick Walker (no effete intellectual!). Mike spoke in his now-familiar monotone style, delivering a lecture about the place I grew up, the Inland Empire, a place I called East of East L.A. but many saw as a backwater of the metropolis. He spoke about the benefits that come from driving a truck or working a butcher line, the latter an experience I knew well from working in my father’s carinercía.
I sought him out after class, first at Cody’s Bookstore that evening, to hear him talk about City of Quartz. It was probably the first book I read front to cover without stopping. His closing chapter, “Junkyard of Dreams,” about Fontana, made me feel as if someone finally understood the hideous truth about Los Angeles, found in one of the city’s many sacrifice zones scattered across the Southland. I remember thinking, “If history can be written like this, I want to be a historian.”
William Deverell is the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.
My sister gave me a first edition Verso City of Quartz when it came out and before I even had heard of it. Years later, Mike signed it for me, and it is one of my prized books, one of my favorite possessions, actually.
I’ll remember the sign-offs, whether by email, quick note, or in an inscription. “In Struggle,” and he meant it. “Abrazos,” and he meant it. Mike never failed to ask after my two kids, and many of our conversations began and ended with him speaking of his children, wondering what mine were up to, smiling at this or that story. My wife and I, years before we were married, were walking hand in hand in Pasadena, and Mike drove by in his truck. He stopped, got out, smiled, and said, “Ah, young love. Restores your faith in all of us.” And then he drove away.
Oh, did he contain multitudes. The fierce intellect, the fearsomeness, the brusquely uncompromising activist scholar, the capacious mind. Mike taught me how to re-think most of what I thought about Southern California, to reframe it beyond the academy and its expectations, even its obligations. I thought I knew what oligarchy meant before Mike taught me deeper ways to understand it and, by extension, to understand modern L.A. And that’s true with so many categories of identity, analysis, and inquiry.
You wouldn’t immediately characterize Mike Davis as a nerd. But he had an innate fascination with the materiality of the past. Political buttons, IWW pamphlets, campaign documents of this or that Leftie or Leftie organization. He was the most interesting combination of antiquarian and politically committed manifesto-writing historian I’ll ever meet. He singlehandedly changed Southern California historiography, so much so that there’s a B.Q. (before Quartz) and an A.Q. (after Quartz) way to look at the field. Still.