The Harvest Gypsies: Migrant Agriculture Laborers in California in the 1930s

John Steinbeck, The Harvest Gypsies. San Francisco News, 5-12 October 1936. PBS, Need to Know, 1 March 2013: “Before he wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck was commissioned by The San Francisco News to write a series of  articles on the migrant laborers of the Salinas Valley. The result, ‘The Harvest Gypsies” (1936) were published consecutively from October 5 to October 12, 1936. In 1938 the Simon J. Lubin Society published The Harvest Gypsies, with an added eighth chapter, in pamphlet form under the title, Their Blood is Strong. Steinbeck’s reportage is stark. The images seen in the Farm Security Administration’s photos bear out his every word.”

Excerpts from stories:

At this season of the year, when California’s great crops are coming into harvest, the heavy grapes, the prunes, the apples and lettuce and the rapidly maturing cotton, our highways swarm with the migrant workers, that shifting group of nomadic, poverty-stricken harvesters driven by hunger and the threat of hunger from crop to crop, from harvest to harvest, up and down the state and into Oregon and to some extent, and into Washington a little. But it is California which has and needs the majority of these new gypsies. It is a short study of these wanderers that these articles will undertake. There are at least 150,000 homeless migrants wandering up and down the state, and that is an army large enough to make it important to every person in the state….

The drought in the middle west has driven the agricultural populations of Oklahoma, Nebraska and parts of Kansas and Texas westward. Their lands are destroyed and they can never go back to them.

Thousands of them are crossing the borders in ancient rattling automobiles, destitute and hungry and homeless, ready to accept any pay so that they may eat and feed their children. And this is a new thing in migrant labor, for the foreign workers were usually imported without their children and everything that remains of their old life with them…. They are small farmers who have lost their farms…. They are resourceful and intelligent Americans, who have gone through the hell of the drought, have seen their lands wither and die and the top soil blow away; and this, to a man who has owned his land, is a curious and terrible pain…. And because of their tradition and their training, they are not migrants by nature. They are gypsies by force of circumstances….

The squatters’ camps are located all over California. Let us see what a typical one is like. It is located on the banks of a river, near an irrigation ditch or on a side road where a spring of water is available. From a distance it looks like a city dump…. You can see a litter of dirty rags and scrap iron, of houses built of weeds, of flattened cans or of paper. It is only on close approach that it can be seen that these are homes.

Here is a house built by a family who have tried to maintain a neatness. The house is about 10 feet by 10 feet, and it is built completely of corrugated paper…. The dirt floor is swept clean, and along the irrigation ditch or in the muddy river the wife of the family scrubs clothes without soap and tries to rinse out the mud in muddy water… With the first rain the carefully built house will slop down into a brown, pulpy mush; in a few months the clothes will fray off the children’s bodies while the lack of nourishing food will subject the whole family to pneumonia when the first cold comes….

[Another family has] one quilt and a piece of canvas for bedding. The sleeping arrangement is clever. Mother and father lie down together and two children lie between them. Then, heading the other way, the other two children lie, the littler ones. If the mother and father sleep with their legs spread wide, there is room for the legs of the children…. Sometimes [the parents] still start the older children off to school, but the ragged little things will not go; they hide in ditches or wander off by themselves until it is time to go back to the tent, because they are scorned in the school….

The attitude of the employer on the large [corporate farms] is one of hatred and suspicion; his method is the threat of the deputies’ guns. The workers are herded about like animals. Every possible method is used to make them feel inferior and insecure. At the slightest suspicion that the men are organizing they are run from the ranch at the points of guns. The large ranch owners know that if organization is ever effected there will be the expense of toilets, showers, decent living conditions and a raise in wages….