Mind Over Matter: A Comparison of Okie, Chinese, and Chicano Experience in California

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“But God knows we are not beasts of burden, we are not agricultural implements or rented slaves, we are men.” ~ Cesar Chavez, 1969

Cesar Chavez’s words, written specifically as a defense and propagation of the farmworkers' movement, give insight into the experience of minorities in agricultural California throughout the early 20th century. Cesar Chavez was a unique and charismatic leader of the farmworkers' movement of the 1960s and 1970s. His work with the National Farm Workers Association affected much-needed change in California (and United States) policy, making a better living situation for migrant and minority workers across the board. Behind these changes was a highly personal experience – one that Chavez shared with other minority groups in the early 20th century from the onset of the Great Depression to the farm labor successes in the 1960s and 1970s.

This paper discusses Cesar Chavez’s experience and relates it to the experiences of Chinese immigrants and ‘Okie’ migrant workers. All three of these groups experienced similar hardships but responded to them in their own way. Ultimately, the paper shows that while these groups did, indeed, have a shared set of experiences, the responses to their experience were highly differentiated. One of the possible explanations for these differences is the importance of race and culture in defining group psychology, the ability for mobilization and representation, and public response. While there is no room for a detailed account of these differences, this paper briefly addresses the most important shared experiences and differentiated results of these three minority groups in post-Great Depression California.

Chavez and the Chicano Experience

Chavez enjoyed his early childhood in relatively comfortable circumstances. His family owned a ranch, and they were able to work their own land and provide for themselves. However, when Chavez was just 11 years old, he began to experience true hardship. With the onset of the Great Depression, the family had to work “feverishly to keep up with the summer cotton harvest and earn enough for the trip to the next crop” (Ferris and Sandoval 17). It did not take long for the situation to take a turn for the worse when the Chavezes were evicted from their ranch. Ferris and Sandoval immediately relate their experience to the ‘Okies’ of the time, saying “like the Okies and thousands of other Americans uprooted by the Great Depression, the Chavezes were driven off their land and onto the road as migrant works” (17). The family attempted to hold out hope of returning to their land (much like many other migrant workers in their position) but eventually gave this hope up after several years.

This is, ostensibly, when the true mark of rebellion began in Chavez. As he reflected in later years, “We were poor, but we had liberty. The migrant is poor, but he has no freedom” (Ferris and Sandoval 18). The family worked for years and years in California, and in those years experienced injustice in many ways – “the family was… cheated by unscrupulous labor contractors, including one who disappeared with half their earnings” (Ferris and Sandoval 21). However, the most important aspect of this experience for Chavez’s development was the fact that his father would not put up with this injustice. Rather than facing this injustice without protest, he would quit a job with his entire family. Chavez’s father even joined several unions in subsequent years – such as the National Farm Labor Union.

There is little doubt that it is these experiences, not only the state of affairs for farmworkers in the 1950s and 1960s, that fueled Chavez’s desire to affect policy change in California. These experiences are what helped form his identity. One of the letters he wrote in 1969 is worth quoting at length:

We are not saints because we are poor, but by the same measure neither are we immoral. We are men and women who have suffered and endured much and not only because of our abject poverty but because we have been kept poor. The color of our skins, the languages of our cultural and native origins, the lack of formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process – all these burdens generation after generation have sought to demoralize us, to break our human spirit. But God knows we are not beasts of burden, we are not agricultural implements or rented slaves, we are men (Ferris and Sandoval 25).

It is quite clear that Cesar Chavez had an early experience of dispossession, subjugation, and even oppression. At first look, it would appear that he shared these experiences with other subjugated minority groups. This includes not only other racial minorities, such as Chinese immigrant workers but internal migrants such as the renowned ‘Okies’ of John Steinbeck fame. The experiences of these two groups are discussed below.

Gold Mountain and the Chinese Experience

The Chinese experience in California is long, complex, and difficult to grasp in such a brief paper. However, Marlon K. Hom’s Songs of Gold Mountain, a collection of Cantonese rhymes and poems from San Francisco, goes a long way to highlighting their experience. The poems are short and to the point, but powerful in meaning. It takes just one poem to recognize the similarities of experience between Chinese migrants and other groups discussed here. The poem is as follows:

I have walked to the very ends of the earth, A dusty, windy journey.

I’ve toiled and I’m worn out, all for a miserable lot.

Nothing is ideal when I am down and out.

I think about it day and night – Who can save a fish out of water?

From far away, I worry for my parents, my wife, my boy:

Do they still have enough firewood, rice, salt, and cooking oil? (Hom 96)

If it were not for the rice and salt, one might think that almost any migrant worker in Great Depression-era California could have written this poem. Even the imagery (“a dusty, windy journey”) is reminiscent of the Okies exodus from the Dust Bowl.

The experiences relate at even a deeper level, as well. As Hom comments before presenting the poems, “The most poignant reference in these rhymes about hardship is not to the actual hardship or physical labor, but to the lack of economic reward. When their labor went unrewarded, many of these men became resigned to fate and disillusioned; others still desperately continued trying” (93). This highlights the similarity of the Chinese experience to that of the Okies and other Chicano migrant workers. It was not the hard work that was disheartening – it was the systematic exploitation of their work, day after day, year after year. This is one of the major similarities between the experiences. One sees it in Chavez above and Steinbeck below.

John Steinbeck and the Okie Experience

One of the major deciding factors in Okie identity was that of social exclusion. The long history of state exclusionary politics translated easily into an across-the-board anti-Okie bias in Californians. It was this bias and subsequent oppression that defined the Okie experience throughout the 1930s. However, what was intended as a term of abuse in the Great Depression-era became a badge of pride by the 1970s, after the Okies found their permanent footing and identity. Nevertheless, Okies had to face similar anti-migrant sentiment in California as Chicanos and Chinese, when anti-migrant sentiment exploded in the 1930s. Growers and owners feared political mobilization, loss of control, and the rise of unions. This was a well-founded fear, it turned out.

John Steinbeck related the Okie experience first in Grapes of Wrath, and then to that of other migrant worker groups in his Harvest Gypsies, first published in the 1930s. In the book, he deemed that Okies are considered to be “outlanders” and “foreigners” in California, meaning that they faced complete ostracism in their own country. Steinbeck stated, “The migrants are needed, and they are hated… They are never received into a community nor into the life of a community. Wanderers in fact, they are never allowed to feel at home in the communities that demand their services” (20). This kind of language clearly connects the experiences of the Okies with other (true) foreigners and outlanders in California. No matter where they came from, they each faced similar ostracism. On the flip side, this also meant the establishment of tent cities, slums, and ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown.

Steinbeck identified California’s treatment of foreigners, especially imported migrant workers, as “a disgraceful picture of greed and cruelty” (52). Even in Harvest Grapes, which is intended to focus on migrant workers from the mid-west rather than on foreign labor, he reviews and discusses California’s system of immigration and deportation laws and practices. Ultimately he argues that the United States’ relations with Chinese and Mexican laborers have been defined by institutionalized discrimination. This is the shared experience of the three groups discussed in this paper.

Comparisons

So far, this paper has highlighted some of the major similarities between the experiences of Chicanos, Chinese, and Okies in agricultural and labor-intense California. What did California represent to these people groups? Surprisingly, it seems that they held their representation in common. California represented hope – symbolized and immortalized in Gold Mountain for the Chinese and Route 66 for the Okies. At the same time, and in complete contrast, California also represented dispossession and economic exploitation. But none of these people groups really had much of a say in the state of affairs. It was the best situation for growers and owners, and the worst for the laborers.

This is the similarity between the three people groups discussed in this paper: their experience of moving to and being in California was largely the same, at least at first. At the very least, their rationale for moving to and being in California (that of economic gain) were the same, whether they had a choice or not. However, this is where the shared experience of these three people groups ends. It is much harder to argue that economic changes affected these groups in the same way. Similarly, one sees differences in the way each group attempted to change their situation through political measures. This is where Cesar Chavez comes back to the center of the stage.

While it certainly is not conclusive, one explanatory theory for these observed differences is race. Even John Steinbeck, champion of the oppressed, recognized the difference of race and suggested that foreign workers had it worse off in their situation than their American counterparts. It would take further research and analysis to fully realize this theoretical proposition. However, the fact that the economic situation of these three groups was the same while their personal experiences and long-term outcome were different, points to race as a possible influential factor. This is only one snapshot in the study of the shared and differentiated experiences of these three minority groups in California. However, it is clear that for all that these groups shared, their experiences and outcomes remain highly differentiated.

Works Cited

Ferris, Susan, and Ricardo Sandoval. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York, NY: Mariner Books, 1998. Print.

Hom, Marlon K. Songs of Gold Mountain: Cantonese Rhymes From San Francisco Chinatown. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987. Print.

Steinbeck, John. Harvest Grapes: On the Road to the Grapes of Wrath. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 2002. Print.