Revered New England poet Robert Frost was born in San Francisco, making him a rather unexpected California native. Frost’s complicated and tragic childhood is featured in Alta’s Summer 2020 issue, in a moving and deeply researched article by contributor Robert Roper. We asked Alta readers to define their version of a California native; does one need to be born here, born and raised, embody the spirit somehow? Their responses were all over the map. Here is a sampling:
Birth Is a Construct
I was born in San Francisco at the age of 22.
San Francisco, California
Not So Golden
I’m embarrassed to say this…’cause it reeks of prejudice and judgment…when I ask someone where they’re from and they respond California, I’m a little disappointed and judge them as less interesting. We—husband, me, and newborn son—arrived in California in 1960. Departing the plane in Los Angeles, seeing my first palm tree, an abomination, I immediately disliked California, and through the years, as I increasingly moved farther north until, in 1986, finding Downieville, which reminded me of Greenfield, Massachusetts, and felt like home, I wasn’t fond of California. Now I’ve been in California more than two-thirds of my life and still think of New England as my home. I’m sorry, California, you’ve been good to me. I’ve had wonderful friends, family, and career, and I’ll spend my last days here, so thank you for being open to non-natives. Robert Frost? Really? Hmm.
Defined by California
I’m a third-generation Californian with a paternal great-grandmother, Ella Farley Harritt, who was considered an important “pioneer” in San Diego and was president of the San Diego Historical Society for many years. A dam was named after her son, Chester Harritt, my grandfather. I have a picture of myself from the San Diego Union uncovering a monument at the site. Chet Harritt was the first superintendent of the Helix Irrigation District. Water, of course, was the key to development of the San Diego area. On the maternal side of my family, my grandmother was born in San Francisco to Irish immigrants. She was baptized at Mission Dolores.
I was living in Berkeley and working in San Francisco when tragedy struck. My late husband, Steve Cone, was one of the passengers who lost his life when a disgruntled airline employee boarded his plane with a handgun, shooting his boss and the pilots. Flight 1771 went down near San Luis Obispo.
After a couple of years of struggle, I decided to pack up a suitcase and my Mac II and move to Boston. I’d loved the city on visits there, the most recent with my late husband. I had in my possession a picture of Steve gazing down with great interest at a gravestone in the Granary Burying Ground. He would be dead within six weeks of visiting there. Thus began a journey for this deeply rooted Californian into the extraordinary other world of New England. I’ve lived in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Concord, Massachusetts, where I stumble over historic sites every day. Compared with California, this place is old. I’m writing from midcoast Maine right now. We live in an old shipbuilding area surrounded by water and forest and a rocky coast. My accent gives me away as someone from “away,” or a “flatlander,” as they call newcomers in Vermont, where I lived for 10 years on a dirt road with mountains all around. It’s been over 30 years now since I ran away from home, and it looks like I won’t ever be going back. That said, California defines who I am. I will always be a westerner, no matter how far away from California I get, and when I die, I’ve asked family to scatter my ashes both in Monterey Bay and the sea surrounding Acadia National Park.
Location, Location, Location
I was born under the Hollywood sign late in 1949 at the Hollywood Presbyterian hospital on Vermont Avenue. So was my sister, born at that same hospital in 1946.
She and I consider ourselves native Californians, to be quite sure. But not so, quite typically, of our long-gone parents (Illinois and Washington State in their cases).
I now live in Ventura, whereas my sister lives in La Selva, near Aptos and Santa Cruz.
Tracing the Family Tree
I am the fourth generation of my family born in California, specifically here in the Bay Area. That makes my three-year-old daughter—Josephine Alta—fifth generation. Yes, we named her after the state! My Great x 2 Grandmother Josephine came to Richmond, California, around the turn of the century. Her son, my great-grandfather Porfirio, who is well into his 90s now, said that his mother dreamed of coming to California from her home state of Michoacán, Mexico. We used to visit her on Second Street in Richmond, in an ancient house with brightly colored walls recalling her Mexican heritage. The first Josephine was diminutive—a tiny lady who had once been no more than five feet tall—but she was tough and raised seven kids.
My husband is a native of New Orleans, which is probably why I went out with him in the first place, and he is proud of my California roots, even writing in my “fifth gen” status on our wedding announcements. Which brings me to a question I would like to ask you: Am I fifth-gen Californian or fourth-? He counts my Grandma Josephine as the first-generation Californian, since she adopted the state as her home. Of course, I’d love to say “fifth generation.” 😉
One other little story I’d like to add: I imagine that most native Californians today trace their family back to the World War II influx (my mom’s entire family came here for the war and many have already left), and that was true of my neighborhood growing up. Our neighborhood was made up of old folks who had come here one way or another because of the war. By the time I was born, in 1983, they were aging and dying off. But these were my first friends, and I still think of them and dream of them to this day. Alta Moran lived directly next door in a tiny house of white stucco and brick. Every year, she planted marigolds, and I spent hours studying the red and orange petals, squeezing the stems open at the seams and sniffing the pungent, spicy smell that lingered on my fingers long after. That smell still brings me back to the overcast, cool days that I spent playing on our lawn and Alta’s—we had no demarcating line between our front yards, a testament, I think, to the friendship the Morans had with my other great-grandparents, who lived there before we did.
Alta and her husband, Roy, came to work in the war effort. They were at least a decade older than most of the other neighbors and were in their last decade when I was born. Alta was my first friend. She would invite me to have “tea” with her, which really consisted of fruit punch, popcorn made in the mystifying air-popper, and thick slices of cheese that she got from the senior food bank. She had a white miniature poodle named Francie, who was later replaced by Dolly, but I didn’t hold these evil little dogs against her. Later, Alta’s son moved her to his home up in Jackson and we got news that she died of a heart attack later that year. I still miss her.
So when my daughter was born, we settled on the perfect middle name, a twofer: one for my native state and one for my dear neighbor who represented that great wave of WWII immigrants to California. Of course, Josie’s entire name is a celebration of our love for California, since in her first name we get to honor my first ancestor to dream of Alta California and the wonders awaiting her. Even after her husband went back to retire in Mexico, living his remaining years on his ranch in Sonora, my Grandma Josephine oversaw her big, sprawling brood of Californians until she died, in 1991.
Naturally, we love our big print issues of Alta. Keep them coming.
Want to share your thoughts or story about whether Californians are born or made? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.