A major drought, over-cultivation, and a country suffering from one of the greatest depressions in history are all it took to displace hundreds of thousands of Midwesterners and send them, and everything they had, out west. The Dust Bowl ruined crops all across the Great Plains region, crops that people depended on for survival. When no food could be grown and no money could be made, entire families, sometimes up to 8 people or more, packed up everything they had and began the journey to California, where it was rumored that jobs were in full supply. Without even closing the door behind them in some cases, these families left farms that had been with them for generations, only to end up in a foreign place where they were neither welcomed nor needed in great quantity. This would cause immense problems for their futures. It is these problems that author John Steinbeck spent a great deal of his time studying and documenting so that Americans could better understand the plight of these migrant farmers, otherwise known as “Okies.” From touring many of these “Hoovervilles” and “Little Oklahomas” (pg. v) Steinbeck was given a firsthand look at the issues and hardships these migrant workers faced on a daily basis. With the help of Tom Collins, manager of a federal migrant labor camp, Steinbeck began a “personal and literary journey” (pg. v), revealing to the world the painful truth of these “Okies” in his book Harvest Gypsies.
They arrived in beat-up, run down vehicles; after traveling thousands of miles into California, often losing children and older family members along the way (pg 22), they arrived with dreams of a brighter future, one with the hope of land for their own and jobs to support their loved ones. The scene they came upon, however, was much different than what they had envisioned. Before the “Okies,” California’s agriculture functioned by the use of imported labor from foreign countries. Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos were all brought in to work, but their low standard of living and attempts to organize caused race riots by the white labor force and subsequent removal of foreign workers from the agricultural industry. The need for cheap labor therefore remained. To fill this void, many Mexican workers were brought in—so many that the white worker could not even live in southern California anymore because the wages were so low. Eventually the Mexican worker population grew so massive that they too began to organize, causing the growers to take action against them with “vigilante terrorism and savagery unbelievable in a civilized state” (pg 54). Eventually Mexican labor was withdrawn as well. The differences between these foreign workers and the Okies were quite numerous. First, the issue of race created large problems; most people in California were not particularly fond of immigrants from foreign lands, people who could not even speak their English. The locals were also displeased with the Okie “squatter camps” that were springing up all around, although race riots were not as big an issue in these places. Another difference was demographics. Most Asian and Mexican laborers were young single males; these men would form into groups of six or more within their respective ethnicities to pool their resources and buy supplies for their survival (Pg.55). The Okies, on the other hand, consisted of families with women and small children, sometimes with only one or two people able to work and support the whole group. Finally, many of these foreign laborers came from worse living situations in their native country than what they experienced as workers in California, whereas the midwestern migrants were coming from farmhouses and comfortable living conditions into a level of poverty that they had never experienced. It is the specifics of this poverty that represent the most appalling concern Steinbeck has for the “Okies”.
The difficulty that the “Okies” experienced in securing jobs was not because of a...
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