My formative understanding of world events had two acts: the ancient history conveyed in the Bible and the modern arc approximated at Disneyland, which opened in Southern California in 1955, four and a half decades before my first visit.
I was ten. My mom and I took a 4:30 A.M. Greyhound bus from Sacramento for the fifteen-hour ride through the Central Valley, past fruit fields, oil rigs, and speed traps, around the Grapevine Hills, and into Anaheim. My mom slept or prayed the rosary most of the way, while I reviewed the two-day game plan I’d drawn up on a piece of binder paper, which I kept in my pocket, folded four times over for protection.
We stayed at a discount Anaheim hotel with a free shuttle to the happiest place on earth and took the first shuttle out the next morning, arriving before the gate opened.
At Disneyland, history starts in the castle at the center of the park, homage to the glorious medieval years after the bubonic plague wound down, when fair maidens and knights vanquished mysterious evils while kings and queens conquered the farthest reaches of the known world with the Christian God behind them, the Moors in retreat, the seas parting, the age of European discovery dawning. I skipped this Fantasyland stage on the timeline and went straight to Adventureland, the part of the park I was most excited to see.
Passing thatched huts with tribal masks at the threshold, I imagined myself an explorer entering the menacing labyrinth of an unfamiliar jungle. It didn’t occur to me that I was envisioning myself in the leather boots and beige cotton of a colonial-era European explorer. On the Jungle Cruise ride, the river snaked through sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America, as the tour guide at the front noted—the colonized world mashed together into a pastiche of drums, dances, spears, and loincloths. Crates decoratively stacked on the riverbank were stamped STANLEYVILLE, a reference to Henry Morton Stanley, who led a two-hundred-man brigade into the jungles of central Africa in the 1870s, relying on forced native labor to carry his excessive supplies, killing hundreds on his path through what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, the rubber-rich territory he claimed on behalf of Belgium’s King Leopold II.
I didn’t know Stanley’s name then. I was more familiar with Indiana Jones. I had watched all the movies, and I hummed the theme song under my breath as we whipped past giant snakes, poison darts, and bloodthirsty savages on the Indiana Jones ride, my favorite in Adventureland. Rumbling down the track in a make-believe jeep, I was a professor-explorer in the field gathering ethnographic notes to bring back to a campus filled with white students.
The history of the West moves west, from Athens to Rome to Paris, across the Atlantic and into the Plains. Once independent of Britain, the European settlers in America embarked on an inland conquest that would reach the Pacific within a century, statehoods granted at a ferocious pace. Frontierland stood as a living monument to my country’s manifestly destined expansion, with a roller coaster set in a mineshaft, a riverboat circling a lake, and a Wild West shooting range. Wearing a felt cowboy hat with Mickey Mouse ears, I imagined myself on a vast and barren plain, with tall red rocks casting jagged shadows and tumbleweeds rolling past. I didn’t know that the Plains hadn’t always looked so vacant, that they’d been home to bustling communities until Old World diseases ravaged their inhabitants, long before the colonial settlers began their program of massacres and forced relocation.
I lived my fantasies through the gaze of the colonizers. The Haunted Mansion in New Orleans Square was designed to resemble an antebellum plantation. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride featured no apparent Caribbean natives but rather European outlaws who pillaged the trade ships loaded with the gold that paid for enslaved people. In Critter Country, set in the ambiguously old American South, my favorite ride was Splash Mountain, which had a thrilling downhill finale and a cast of animatronic animals from the 1946 movie Song of the South, which is about a Reconstruction-era Black servant telling a white child parables about the virtues of resilience in tough times and never running away—“an insult to American minorities,” said Harlem congressional representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Disney hasn’t shown the film since 1986, but it wasn’t until summer of 2020 that Disneyland would change the ride’s theme, its implications at last too blatant to avoid, unlike the more subtle tributes to oppression scattered around.
The first part of the park we passed through on our way in and the last on our way out was Main Street, U.S.A., an idealized vision of early-twentieth-century small-town America, decked out with ice cream parlors, trolley bells, straw hats, and accordion music, a grotesque phantasm straight from the mind of Walt Disney, the racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, union-busting mastermind behind some of the fondest memories of my childhood. Disney based Main Street, U.S.A., on his own hometown of Marceline, Missouri, as he remembered it from his childhood, when it was segregated under Jim Crow-era enforcement. “For those of us who remember the carefree time it recreates,” he said when the park opened, “Main Street will bring back happy memories.”
All around me were the settings for myriad traumas. Thank God I couldn’t see any of that, because once you do, you can’t unsee it. Pity the child who wanders Disneyland in a haze of despair.
In hindsight, the edifice was delicate. When we rode It’s a Small World, I scanned the landscape of animatronic child dolls, looking for the one that represented me amid the alleged cultural diversity on display—twelve minutes of Inuit fisherfolk, Nordic ice skaters, lederhosen-clad Germans, British guards with tall black hats, French cabaret dancers, Spanish flamenco dancers, Scots with bagpipes, Dutch girls with blond pigtails, Italians riding gondolas, Russians in red bonnets, Arabs charming snakes, Indians beside a silhouetted Shiva, Japanese women bowing in kimonos, Chinese acrobats balancing jars, an Egyptian sphinx, sub-Saharan Africans with afros playing drums beside a lion, Mexicans in sombreros dancing around a bigger sombrero, Peruvians in ponchos on a mountain, white Americans sitting on hay bales, and so on. I nearly jumped out of my seat when I noticed the shirtless brown dolls wearing grass skirts and leafy crowns who apparently embodied South Pacific people at large. As if willing it to be true, I pointed out the generic dark-skinned islanders and said to my mom, “There’s the Philippines!” On our second time through, I devoted myself to listening closely to the dozens of languages singing, a merry global chorus. No matter how closely I listened, I didn’t hear any Tagalog. You can only fit so many cultures in a twelve-minute ride.
Albert Samaha is an investigative journalist and inequality editor at BuzzFeed News. A Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant recipient, he is also the author of Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City, which was a finalist for the 2019 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing. He lives in Brooklyn.
From Concepcion by Albert Samaha, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Albert Samaha.