Louis Owens and John Steinbeck's Ghosts

A mystery solved with the help of a professor and a mobster's musician

Although Steinbeck didn't use the bigoted language that was so common at the time, he was nevertheless implying that the "blood" of the Mexican workers wasn't "strong," that democracy didn't come naturally to them, when the opposite was true: Organizers found the Mexicans more willing to stand up for their rights.

I wrote up a paper about the research and managed to get it accepted at a conference in Baltimore—an encouraging experience for a relatively green graduate student. Louis was pleased, and so was I. But he knew why I felt that the work was incomplete: More than anything, I told him, I wanted to speak to the Mexican workers who had taken part in the strike. Only then would the research feel comprehensive.

Sixty years after the event, of course, that was pure fantasy. There was almost no information about any of the thousands of people who had struck. Many weren't American citizens, and all of them worked seasonally, with few having fixed addresses. Finding a 1933 migrant worker in 1993? It was never going to happen.

Louis Owens  won the American Book Award in 1997 for his novel Nightland.
Louis Owens won the American Book Award in 1997 for his novel Nightland.
Tony and Virginia swore that Lucky Luciano took in  one of their nightclub shows.
Tony and Virginia swore that Lucky Luciano took in one of their nightclub shows.


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LOUIS OWENS, 1948-2002

  • His Wikipedia page
  • A beautiful description of Owens, written by one of his best friends, former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Glen Martin
  • An excellent, lengthy interview with Owens conducted by Western Washington University professor John Purdy

    The Novels

  • Wolfsong, 1995
  • The Sharpest Sight, 1995
  • Bone Game, 1996
  • Nightland, 1996
  • Dark River, 1999
  • Still, I felt that I had something interesting to tell my own Mexican family as I traveled home to Southern California for the short winter break at the end of 1993. The research had made me curious about the stories I'd heard regarding my grandfather, Antonio Ortega, who'd been a nightclub musician in gangster-controlled San Bernardino in the 1940s. It was time, I thought, to shift my research to the subject of my own family. And there was a reason not to put it off: My grandfather was recovering from a heart attack, and the news was not encouraging.

    The Ortegas, like many other Mexicans, came to the United States during the early days of the revolution in 1910. My great-grandparents had come from Chihuahua in the north and Guanajuato in central Mexico. Both of my father's parents, Antonio Ortega and Virginia Mendoza, were born in California, even though their first language was Spanish and most of the people they knew were Mexican (no one used the term "Mexican-American" when they were growing up and, even into old age, my grandparents divided the world into us "Mexicans" and you "Americans," even though they were born as U.S. citizens).

    My grandparents had lived their entire lives in California's Inland Empire, and when I came to visit them, they were living in a mobile home in Yucaipa. I was shocked by my grandfather's appearance; he was shriveled now, such a little man, when my memories of him were so different. But when I announced my project—to interview them about the old days—they both seemed thrilled, and the ailments plaguing them both suddenly became more tolerable.

    Tell me about the nightclubs, I asked, knowing that it was something my grandfather actually wanted to put behind him. ("I feel like I've wasted my life," he once told me, and I begged him not to think that way.) For decades, Tony had performed in restaurants and clubs, playing American and Mexican music on a keyboard with a small band he called his "orchestra." To me, it was magic to hear about his nights in the clubs, especially during the rough days of prewar San Bernardino, when the town was run by gangsters from the East.

    The mobsters had divided the town in half, controlling gambling and prostitution. They operated lively joints where Tony's orchestra found steady employment, giving him a front-row seat for the underworld action. He watched as mob bosses like Johnny Russo plied local politicians with booze and favors so they wouldn't interfere with his operations. Russo in particular liked Tony's band and his look; in those days, my grandfather was a beefy man with a tough appearance. Russo would take him to sit ringside at prizefights in Riverside, and he enjoyed it when people got the impression that Tony was his bodyguard. The gangster's esteem for my grandfather became so great that, in 1939, Russo asked him to take over the management of a bar he owned in San Bernardino's red-light district. It was a stunning offer—one that would have meant a considerable increase in income and a very different life for the Ortegas.

    But my grandfather turned him down flat. "It wasn't for me," he said.

    He explained that he might let a gangster take him to a prizefight, but he wasn't a man to get involved with the rackets. It was a smart decision: By 1942, the town had been cleaned up and Russo had been deported.

    Tony, meanwhile, had joined the Army and was stationed in New York and Texas during the war. After coming home, he helped found an American Legion hall in Redlands—Post 650—because the other one in town wouldn't accept Mexican-American veterans.

    And he went back to playing music. At the peak of his popularity, he even landed a regular gig in the early days of television. On Sunday mornings in 1948, a local station broadcast a musical show sponsored by a San Bernardino car dealership that featured my grandfather's orchestra.

    I soaked up his stories and those of my grandmother. She often sang for the band, and the two of them swore that Lucky Luciano himself had taken in one of their shows when San Bernardino was still mobbed up.

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