Informant: When my grandma moved from the reservation in Oklahoma—the one where, like, you know, they were forced to go after the Trail of Tears and stuff—to California, people were mean to her and her family. And the other Choctaw Freeman. So they’d sing this little song, like:
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,
all the Okies go to heaven.
When we get up there;
we’ll sing: hell, hell,
you’re gonna go to hell,
all the Californians are gonna go to hell!”
The informant is a student at the University of Southern California. She is from an “eccentric” family. Her grandmother is Choctaw Freedman (formerly enslaved African Americans who joined the Native American Choctaws in Oklahoma) and has passed on many of her traditions and beliefs to the informant.
This song, the informant told me, is something her grandmother and other Choctaw Freedmen preformed together when they came to California and faced prejudice. The song is colored with equal parts resentment for Californians and pride in the Choctaw Freedmen identity.
In Altadena, California, there’s a hill called Gravity Hill. When you go on its downward-facing slope in a car in neutral, the car starts going uphill.
Gravity Hill is situated next by a reservoir; there are trees everywhere, but it’s a pretty open space otherwise.
The informant first heard about when she was 12 — she’d heard that it was super creepy and that there were ghosts and spirits pushing you up the hill, and that the “magic” worked better at night.
When she first went on it, she thought that the entire scene was an illusion of angles. Later on, she would walk around in that area all the time, climb the fences that surrounded the area and hang out there with friends. Hanging out in Gravity Hill was very much “a thing” to do when you were a kid or a teenager in Altadena.
Altadena in general is, in the words of the informant, an Altadena native, “hippie dippy.” She describes the locals as “sort of weird,” so something like Gravity Hill seemed right at home there.
The informant, one of my housemates, shared the story with me in conversation.
The existence of these sort of geographical anomalies, where the perceived tilt of the earth doesn’t match how things actually move, is not that rare — I recently traveled to a similar place in NorCal named Confusion Hill. In both cases, the existence of spirits was taken as granted, not necessarily because people strongly believed in them, but because it was just seen as another weird thing to add onto the already weird location.
That said, the fact that the residents in the area are known for being a little off kilter as well makes the existence of and continued legendary presence of Gravity Hill more understandable.
The informant lives in a house in Altadena — behind her house is a trail that leads into the woods. At a certain point on that trail, there are a bunch of abandoned-looking houses that are actually occupied. This area is collectively known as Zorthian. People go there to scare themselves, but it’s rumored to be a meeting ground for local members of the KKK. There are other legends surrounding the area, but the informant isn’t clear on those.
Because the informant’s house is so close to Zorthian, she can sometimes hear the screams — and subsequent laughter — of the people who go there to scare themselves. She also frequently sees cop cars in the area, as Zorthian’s residents call in police to take care of trespassing people in the area.
At night, the entire area is tree-lined and very dark. People, especially teenagers, go there to drink and smoke. This practice is clearly despised by the people who actually live there, but because of the creepy, strange associations of just the buildings and where they are themselves, people still go to the area to scare and be scared.
The informant, one of my housemates, shared the story with me in conversation.
What I find really interesting about this story is how even though it’s generally acknowledged that there’s nothing especially haunted or out of place in Zorthian (besides its ridiculous name), locals still treat it as such, even if only in a joking way.
The informant is a college-age male whose parents are both originally from Pakistan. He has lived in Southern California all his life, with frequent trips to Pakistan to visit extended family. Although he graduated from a public high school, he attended a private Islamic elementary school until the third grade. He says there were Muslims of many backgrounds at the school, and one of his friends (who also happened to be of Pakistani descent) used to sing this as a joke during rehearsals for school programs. It is a partial parody of a once-popular song by the artist R. Kelly.
I believe i can die
I got shot by the FBI
My momma hit me with a chicken wing
All the way to Burger King
Analysis: The informant (and, according to him, his other friends and classmates) always thought the song was funny, both because “the original song was about how, you know, you can do anything if you try hard and believe in yourself, and like… not letting your fears get in the way of…getting your dreams or whatever. And then it’s like, oh, I got shot by the FBI and my mom hates me…So, that was funny;” and also that the friend in question was also a bit of a troublemaker, so the just the fact of him singing the rather inappropriate song when he was supposed to be singing a school song, “made it even funnier” to the informant.
From a more objective point of view, the elementary school attended by the informant was located in South Los Angeles, which has a high population of African-American residents. It is quite possible that this parody was learned from neighbors or friends who were African-American, as it seems to give voice, through humor, to anxieties about dangers which are uniquely part of the reality of African-Americans in South LA–that is, being “shot by the FBI” or otherwise victimized by members of potentially racist law enforcement or the government. It’s also a very stark contrast between the original song’s message of hope and inspiration and this version’s obvious (justified) pessimism about American society. On the other hand, the second and third lines seem to include stereotypes about African Americans’ supposed fondness for fried chicken and fast-food and their strict parenting style.
An online search reveals that parodies of this song are common among African Americans from LA to Pittsburgh, revealing how far and wide the common anxieties of this minority group spreads.
Context: The informant is a young professional who graduated from UCLA in 2012. She relays that the acronym for her school had the unofficial meaning of the “University of Cute Little Asians”.
Analysis: A quick search of the UCLA website’s enrollment statistics shows that the ethnic category with the highest enrollment is those who have checked the “Asian/Pacific Islander” box, at 34.8% of total students; the next largest group is white students at 27.8%. The informant herself is not white, nor did she elaborate on whether or not she used the term in her own conversations, but she did confirm that at her time at UCLA, a large portion of the students she saw on a daily basis appeared to be of Asian descent.
The term therefore seems to be a somewhat racist comment on the high population of Asian-descent students at UCLA, combined with the well-worn stereotype that those of East Asian ancestry are shorter in stature than white people, and the fetishization of Asians, particularly Asian women, with the term “cute”.
A somewhat related term I have heard during my time at USC is “University of Spoiled Children”, quite obviously referring to the stereotype of most USC students being rich and white, and a good many of them “legacy” students, meaning an older family member also attended. This view, however distasteful to some, is actually rather true: USC’s student body is 39% white (the next biggest group, 23%, is Asian). And according to an LA Times article, “the percentage of USC students [whose family income is] over $200,000…is more than twice as high as [UCLA]‘s”.
I have also heard the much less controversial and more humorous “University of Summer Construction” (but not just summer anymore–I have been a student since the fall of 2010, and there has been some sort of constrution, modification, addition, or repairing going on every single semester along the commonest routes I take across campus).
Context: The informant is a Pakistani-American 11-year-old girl and a 6th grader at a public school in Torrance, CA. The following clapping rhyme is a two-person game she learned in first grade.
“I went to a Chinese restaurant
To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread
She asked me what my name was
And this is what i said, said, said
My name is
L-I-L-I, Pickle-eye pickle-eye
pom-pom beauty, sleeping beauty
Then she told me to freeze freeze freeze
And whoever moves, loses.”
The word “freeze” may be said either once or three times, and at that moment the players must both freeze. The informant also showed me the two kinds of clapping sequence that are used for the two parts of the game, one for the first four lines, and the other for lines 6-8.
Analysis: At first glance, the rhyme seems like complete nonsense; but upon further examination, the rhyme could conceal casual racism. “Li” could be an East Asian name. Rhyming it with “pickle-eye” (which itself could be referring to culturally unfamiliar food which is automatically dismissed as unnatural or revolting–for instance recall the urban legend where neighborhood cats/dogs were disappearing after immigrants from [insert Asian country here] moved in), which is essentially a nonsense word, could be meant to show disrespect towards all people with similarly “Asian” names. Then referring to oneself as a “pom-pom beauty” (perhaps referring to a cheerleader’s pom-poms) and “sleeping beauty” (the classic western fairy tale) as a contrast to the “Li” lady is like proclaiming, I am an all-American girl, like a cheerleader or Sleeping Beauty, and you are not.
Context: The informant is an 11 year old girl of Pakistani descent. She is a 6th grader at a public school in Torrance, CA. Her social groups include friends of many different religious and ethnic backgrounds. The following clapping rhyme is a two-person game she learned in first grade.
Lemonade, iced tea, Coca-cola, Pepsi,
turn around, touch the ground, kick your boyfriend out of town, freeze”
Another version from the same informant begins with the same line:
Beat it once,
beat it twice,
Lemonade, crunchy ice, beat it once, beat it twice,
turn around, touch the ground, kick your boyfriend out of town, freeze”
In the last line of both versions, the players may perform the actions sung: they turn in a circle, drop to a crouch to touch the ground, and may even stand up and make a kicking motion. At the word “freeze,” both players must stop moving, and the first to move loses.
Analysis: I learned a version of this game, similar to the second version recorded, from cousins who went to the same school district as the informant. Instead of the words “beat it,” however, the words “pour it” were used, and the last line was completely omitted. The rhyme ended with the players crying “Statue!” and the first person to move, lost. Somehow, however, a player was allowed to tickle the other person to get them to move, even though tickling would seemingly count as moving.
The incorporation of Coca-cola and Pepsi, both globally-recognizable drink names, into the rhyme is evidence of how popular the drink is worldwide and how it has been incorporated into “American” or “Southern California” culture, that children are mentioning it in their songs along with the ever-popular summer drink of lemonade.
The last line “Turn around, touch the ground” seems to be echoing some long-dead magic ritual, especially when followed by a mention of the singer’s boyfriend (keeping in mind that 11 years old, the majority of children likely have nothing close to a romantic partner yet). Also, the pouring of the drink–once, then twice–would seem to recall the adult practice of pouring drinks for oneself and one’s partner after a long day or at a party. This shows this age-group’s (perhaps unconscious) desire to mimic the adult relationships they see with their own peers.
Informant: “We have a Summer Solstice parade which is pretty wild too, but that doesn’t have anything to do with Fiesta. That’s a weird parade. I can’t even… It’s literally– the point of it is to be as weird as you physically, possibly can. There are people in, like, snow globes and they have, like, crazy make-up on. And they’re like, there’s, like, pregnant women doing, like, belly dancing.”
Lavelle: “So it’s like all the weird people come out–”
Informant: “Oh! It’s, like, people, it’s just, like, people who are like, ‘I’m usually a normal person, but I want my freak flag to fly.’ I don’t understand it but, Summer Solstice is the weirdest day in Santa Barbara. Like fiesta it’s, like, everyone’s drunk and blah lah lah… but that’s normal…”
Lavelle: “Where does summer solstice happen?:
Informant: “Uh, State Street. It all happens on State Street. It is the most bizarre parade and just… People make these floats that are, like, so strange and you’re just watching it and you’re like, ‘what drugs are you on?’ Like I imagine people would have a great time if they smoked some weed. It’s trippy, dude.
My informant is a native of Santa Barbara, California. He has never been very involved in the Summer Solstice celebration, but is aware of it’s existence. He seems wary of the population it draws into the town.
The informant, at the age of eight or nine, heard of this belief from her father as the family of four was making a road trip to Las Vegas. She was a sheltered child who was used to getting her way, so she was complaining about the boring road trip they had to take that had lasted for hours already. Her father then told her that only if she could hold her breath for the entire time the car was inside the tunnel, then she could make any wish and it would come true. Coming from her father, a credible source up until then, she believed him and held her breath so that she could wish that the ride would be over soon. Ever since then she has been holding her breath under tunnels and competing with her younger brother to see who could hold it in through the longest tunnel. Because it was so much fun when she was younger, she still sometimes holds her breath and makes wishes, although she has outgrown the stage in her childhood when she would believe that her silent wish would somehow come true. She thinks that it is just a great form of entertainment when one is bored. Now she likes to tell her younger cousins the same belief, hoping it will bring them as much fun and entertainment as it did her all those times before.
Around Orange County there aren’t many tunnels to drive through. In fact, the only time I have ever driven under a tunnel was during my own family road trips to Colorado, when we had to drive through mountains. However, I stumbled upon this same belief in almost the same way the informant did, that you could make a wish if you held your breath for the entire time you went under a tunnel. This wishmaking does not have to occur during road trips or during a family vacation. It can occur at any time. I also believe that this wishmaking is just another form of entertainment for young children, and nothing to take seriously. I believe it is retold to spread information that is fun and enjoyable for everyone.
Informant: “So the infamous family get together… so every year at the time of the fourth of July, the Forward family would hold a reunion back up at our cabin that is near Lassen in Manton, California. And that is an area that was homesteaded by our great-great-grandfather, who actually was at West Point when the Civil War broke out. And he decided that he couldn’t choose between the North and the South, so he packed up the wagon and headed out to California to avoid the whole Civil War. Any event, they settled in Oregon originally, and then they moved down to Northern California where Manton now is. And they eventually built a lumber company there, a saw mill. So uh, in any event that is where the family homestead is and we would go back every July 4th to the family homestead, and my grandfather and his brother, my uncle, would hold a big barbecue. And the way they would barbecue was that the meal was typically on Sunday, or whatever, but the day before you would dig a big pit and you would buy tri-tip and you would put it in burlap sacks. You would season the meat, put it in burlap sacks and wet it, and you built this pit. And the day before you would get some firewood, it had to be oak to get the right coals, and you would fill that pit with the coals and then would dig out the coals, throw in the meat that is in the wet burlap sacks and wrapped in the pit, and then you would throw dirt over those, and then throw the coals over that. So it is kind of like the Hawaiian pig roasts, they way they burry the pig. And then that cooks all night long and through the next morning. So part of the fun was digging the pit and keeping the fire going. And the men would stay up all night, until usually 1:00 in the morning when they would put the meat in. And they would drinking whiskey and tell stories. There were no women allowed, this was just a guys thing. So then, we would dig up the meat the next day that had been cooking for 8 hours and we had this beautiful tri-tip that had slow cooked for 8 hours in the earth. And then we would add some more seasoning, and that was the main meal for our big family reunion party every year. And the family reunion was always done at the cabin near the lower pond. We actually had built a little picnic area just for that one party, every year. The other fun thing we used to do is there is no refrigeration but there is a creek that runs right by the picnic area, so instead of having to bring ice or anything, the creek was cold enough with the water coming off Mt. Lassen. We put all the food that had to be cooled in the creek, so the kids would have to build a little rock dam, a little pool so that the stuff wouldn’t wash down the stream. And we put watermelon in there, and put all the beer and pop bottles there, all the stuff the water wouldn’t hurt. And that was their kind of fun thing that was the kid’s responsibility every year.”
“The Pig Roast” as it is called serves as a way for the family to reunite every year. The 4th of July was chosen for the reunion date for two reasons. One, getting to celebrate Independence day with family is a fun way for the family to reflect proudly on their American heritage. Another reason why the date was chosen was because it is a time of year that is easier for family members to travel back to Manton, because the children are out of school for the summer and July is not a busy month for farmers, and ranchers, which is the occupation of many family members. The pig roast is always held on Sunday of the 4th of July weekend, because Sunday is traditionally a day of rest and family time.
The special method of how the pig is cooked is also part of the reunion’s ritual. The pig is generally slaughtered from the family’s farm, and then it is prepared in a special method that has been repeated since the first Manton pig roast. The fact that only the men in the family are allowed to prepare the pig represents a strong patriarchal value in the family, which still holds true today. When a boy in the family is finally allowed to stay up late with the men and drink whiskey and share stories, this important event represents that the family has accepted the boy as a man. This initiation into adulthood is also the men’s way of saying to the boy that they are ready to give him more responsibilities as an adult.
The fact that every group in the family, the men, children, and women, all have a specific responsibilities for the preparation for the pig roast is tied to the family’s history of being primarily farmers and ranchers. Working on a farm or ranch requires a lot of hard work and responsibility so everyone has to do there part, including the children.
The Manton pig roast represents American traditions and values in that there is a strong emphasis on family, hard work, and independence, which is reflected in the origin story of the family homestead. This is because the idea that their great-great grandfather was a pioneer in the West represents the idea that in America if you work hard and have the determination to do so you can accomplish great things. This story is often used to inspire these ideas of success and independence in the family today.
My informant was born in 1957 Arcata, California to a high school basketball coach and his wife. After earning his undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of California, Davis, he moved to southern California to obtain his MBA in business from the University of Southern California. He now a partner at Ernst & Young. He lives in Manhattan Beach, CA with his wife and has two children.