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The Grapes of Wrath – Migrant Farm Workers in California

They call the documented farmworkers “braceros”, the arms that pick, and the undocumented ones “mojados”, wet backs. The latter is a derogatory word used to describe migrants who risk their lives crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico to enter the United States without documentation. Today it’s estimated that 80% of crop workers in the United States are Latino migrant labourers and around 2.3 million workers are undocumented.

Agricultural production in the U.S. has long depended on migrant farm labour. During the 1930s Great Depression, “Okies” fled from the drought and dust of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas to the vineyards, farms and fruit orchards of the rolling green valleys of California. The migration continues.

Today Latino workers from Mexico and Central America form the majority of agricultural labourers in Sonoma County, California. In 2014, they were paid, on average, just over $10/hour and earned a median salary of just over $20,000 on an annual basis. They are the hundreds of thousands of invisble hands that plant, weed, spray and pick the fruits of California’s agricultural production.

What's changed since the challenges migrant farmers of the 1930s faced in Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"?

Photo Credit – Russell Lee, 1939 What’s changed since the challenges migrant farmers of the 1930s faced in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”?

While writing Women Who Dig, I realized that an important voice was missing from the narrative of global women and agriculture. What are the stories and experiences of female migrant farm labourers? I decided to look south across the border to the state of California where the agriculture system is largely dependent on the bodies of migrant labourers. Not to say that there isn’t migrant labour closer to home, but there’s something particular about the California story that calls.

This morning, KJ Dakin and I are traveling from Vancouver down the Pacific coast past rock and crashing wave, past the humungous ancient redwoods to reach Sonoma County. Sonoma is carpeted in vineyards, fruit orchards and artisanal  and large-scale farms. We’re connecting with the Graton Day Labor Centre, an organization that serves as a liaison between day labourers, including farm workers, and businesses in the region. GDLC helps to protect worker’s rights, lobby for more just immigration policies and provide access to education and training for migrant workers.

Just last month I read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for the first time (not sure how thirty years passed me by without reading it before, but it couldn’t have been more timely). In the novel, the Joad family is pushed off their land by the banks and drought and they head West to California, lured by the false promise of abundant work and opportunity.

Seventy years later and what’s changed? Men and women and children from Mexico and countries in Central America take the journey south — but the journey is far, far more violent and harrowing than Steinbeck could’ve ever imagined.

I’m privileged for the opportunity to meet some of the women who’ve made the journey and are currently luchando for their rights to decent, fair work and more just immigration policies. But how are these women paying the price to put food on the American table?

“Women can change better’n a man,” Ma said soothingly. “Woman got all her life in her arms. Man got it all in his head. Man, he lives in jerks-baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk-gets a farm and looses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, its all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out.” — John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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