“From this valley they say you are going…we will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile…for they say you are taking the sunshine…that has brightened our path for a while.” These are lines from Red River Valley, a song heard throughout John Ford’s classic film of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, and the melancholy theme for the Joad family’s hard-travelin’ exodus from dustbowl Oklahoma. Tenant farmers, the Joads head to California hoping for a better life, forced from their home by drought and economic hardship. With a few days off in early November, I am driving there and back, crisscrossing my great state of California from Santa Cruz to Nipomo, Los Angeles to Fresno, and Yosemite to Oakland. The many legs of my journey take me through the Central Coast, the Los Angeles Basin, the Central Sierras, and the Central Valley. The land is parched, thirsting for rain and relief from a multi-year drought; and Chicano, Latino and Mexican-American agricultural workers — immigrants and migrants – who came to California hoping for a better life, populate much of this land.
In the fields of the Pajaro Valley, near Watsonville in Monterey County, artichokes, strawberries and cole crops like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are tended and harvested. Farther down the road, I arrive in yet another important agricultural county, San Luis Obispo, where avocados, citrus, and vegetables are grown. As I drive by the workers in the field, Gloria Anzaldua’s words from her book Borderlands: La Frontera ring in my ears: “To live in the Borderlands means you are neither hispana india negra espanola, ni gabacha, eres mestizo, mulata, half-breed caught in the crossfire between camps while carrying all five races on your back not knowing which side to turn to, run from…”
Today migrants of the borderlands make these agricultural riches possible, but some fifty years ago, “Okies” migrants from the 1930s dustbowl tended the crops of this county. Working in Nipomo, Dorothea Lange documented this earlier migration and plight of the workers in her famous Great Depression photograph of the “Migrant Mother.”
Further down the road, I reach Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley where, Buck Owens Boulevard crosses Highway 58, which leads to the Cesar Chavez National Memorial in Keene. The child of Texas sharecroppers driven out by dust and the Depression, Buck Owens found seasonal work following the crops from Gila Bend, Arizona through the Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys of California. Growing up listening to Mexican border radio stations and Baptist gospel songs, Buck made Bakersfield his home and became famous for singing the story of the “Okie” migrants who came to find work in the farms and oilfields of Central California. Owen’s contributions and the work of Merle Haggard are chronicled in Gerald Haslam’s Workin’ Man’s Blues: Country Music in California. Ironically, just a few miles south of the road memorializing Owens is the final resting place of Cesar Chavez at the headquarters of the United Farm Workers (UFW) who started and led the farm workers’ movement to give voice to the next generation of poor and disenfranchised agricultural workers.