CRM Journal

Book Review

San Diego's World's Fairs and Southwestern Memory, 1880-1940

By Matthew F. Bokovoy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005; xx + 316 pp., illustrations, notes, bibliography, index; cloth $29.95.


San Diego's World's Fairs and Southwestern Memory cover

According to Matthew F. Bokovoy, a historian and acquisitions editor for the University of Oklahoma Press, no two events shaped the interpretation of the Spanish heritage of Southern California and the Southwest more profoundly than the San Diego Expositions of 1915-1916 and 1935-1936. Bokovoy's book chronicles the planning, execution, and legacy of these two massive events in an effort to explore "how the dynamics of imagination and power" shaped American ideas about the region and its diverse peoples.

The first part of the book, entitled "History As Myth," devotes itself to the Panama-California Exposition of 1915-1916. In his brief preface, Bokovoy describes the history of the region and asserts that fin-de-siècle Anglo Americans fondly remembered the era of Spanish and Mexican rule, and then he launches into the history of the political preparation required to hold the fair. He explains how San Diego representatives distinguished their exposition from San Francisco's larger Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which was scheduled for that same year, by highlighting the area's unique regional character and its Spanish and Indian heritage in particular. Though labor unrest and political divisions distracted attention from their boosterism, San Diego's civic leaders eventually persuaded Congress to approve the exposition.

The next chapters describe how a 1911 pageant and the 1915-1916 exposition celebrated "progress, pluralism and racial harmony." Bokovoy spends considerable time summarizing the anthropological exhibits and the Spanish colonial revival architecture of the exposition, as well as the complicated negotiations leading to their creation. Drawing on a variety of documents—his visual sources are particularly rich—Bokovoy argues that the overarching message of the fair's buildings and exhibits was at once egalitarian and racist, suggesting to fairgoers that San Diegans of Mexican and Indian origin had come to embrace and live by an Anglo American Progressivism.

His fourth chapter, "A Heritage in History, Forever" succeeds admirably in proving his assertion that Anglos primarily shaped public visions of the past in these fairs, but Indians and Mexicans played a vital role in creating the invented traditions. His description of the Painted Desert is a vivid one, and the story of how the Pueblo peoples employed there both presented and shielded their indigenous culture from outsiders is fascinating. Bokovoy deftly shifts between the varying perspectives of Indians and Anglos, and the chapter explores the methods of resistance (including the theft of illegally recorded films of ritual dances from exposition organizers) Painted Desert Indians used to ensure the integrity of aspects of their culture. Bokovoy mines his sources effectively, and he turns what might have been a hackneyed discussion of agency into an exciting chapter on the complexities of class, race, and ethnicity in the context of fairground life.

In the second half of the book, "Myth As History," Bokovoy turns his attention to the California-Pacific International Exposition. He describes the civic development of San Diego in the interwar period, paying special attention to the city's museums and heritage sites. He also depicts the chronic confrontations over labor during these years, and the way the repressive tactics of San Diego industry leaders particularly affected unskilled Mexican workers. In 1936, wealthy and relatively liberal San Diegans, led by Democrat Frank Drugan, decided to combat Depression-era suffering and the city's class divisions by holding another exposition. Again, local leaders lobbied Congress for support, but this time presented San Diego as a paradise of material abundance and social progress.

Persuaded such a fair would result in a more sophisticated tourist economy for the city, local leaders championed what they called "America's Exposition." Ford and other major corporations sponsored pavilions and exhibits, and exposition planners seemed especially interested in pushing real estate on fairgoers, creating an appealing "Modeltown" that featured small versions of modernized regional architecture. Bokovoy concludes with a description of the "Zocalo" of the 1935-1936 exposition, which updated the exotic entertainments offered by midways at earlier World's Fairs. Adult entertainments like Zorro's Gardens, the Gold Gulch, and Sally Rand's fan dances led to local contests over moral authority and highlighted class and religious conflict between local workers and San Diego's increasingly conservative, middle-class Protestant community.

An expanded version of the author's doctoral dissertation, San Diego's World's Fairs and Southwestern Memory reads like two very different books. The first is a detailed, sometimes plodding narrative of the political and administrative decisions leading up to the expositions. The second is a lively exploration of the social significance of the fairs, as well as the cultural machinations of its participants.

Though his assertion that the San Diego expositions had a significant impact on public ideas about the region's ethnic heritage is convincing, at least in the first part of the book, Bokovoy's early declaration that the fantasy heritage promoted by the expositions had positive ramifications for Mexicans and Anglos is far less so. He does not point to significant gains in political or economic equality but bases his statement largely on the period's civic rhetoric.

Unfortunately, ethnicity and race essentially disappear in the 1935 fair, weakening his argument, but his descriptions of the Depression-era extravaganza are so entertaining that readers may not care. The photograph of seven women fighting an enormous robot intended to represent machine civilization itself justifies the detour away from his stated argument.

Bokovoy is a diligent chronicler, providing readers with thorough detail about local politics and the planning processes for these two expositions. The book is a solid contribution to the study of California history, and provides a sound overview of San Diego's history and the region's complicated ethnic relationships.  Historians of regional development and urban politics will find this book a useful case study, filled with information about the municipal hurdles encountered in the course of staging an extravagant public event. Scholars of public memory and World's Fairs should take a look at chapters 3 and 4 in particular, for Bokovoy provides some excellent insights into the way the fairs combined Spanish, Mexican, Indian, and Anglo heritages under a single Progressive banner.

Victoria Cain
Columbia University