In Migrant Camp and Beyond, California Drought Brings a Familiar Desperation

During the Depression, the Central Valley represented hope for migrant "Okies." Today, growers and farmworkers struggle through California's worst drought in history. This is the last of three parts.

"They were hungry, and they were fierce. And they had hoped to find a home, and they found only hatred."—The Grapes of Wrath

Like the fictional Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath, I'd dreamt of eating fresh peaches picked from a tree. Inspired by pastoral pictures on food labels, I'd imagined wading deep into the avocado orchards, tomato fields, and lettuce farms of California's Central Valley.

Instead, as my family drove the roads bisecting Highway 99 during a hot week in July, we passed unplanted fields and citrus groves with dying trees. There was little green except where irrigation had moistened the soil just enough to sustain a crop. The valley, a place that provides one-third of the fruits and vegetables in U.S. supermarkets' produce sections, looked like a desert. (Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

Still, my family of three was excited because we'd finally reached the exact point where the Joad family had ended up in John Steinbeck's classic novel, published 75 years ago: the San Joaquin Valley.

It was here, and not on Route 66, after all, that most of the action in The Grapes of Wrath took place—where the family looked for work picking crops in Weedpatch, where Tom Joad ended up killing a man during a farmworkers' strike in Pixley, where Rose of Sharon's baby was stillborn near Tulare.

We took Route 223 looking for the real-life version of the Weedpatch migrant camp where the Joads had stayed during their first month in California. We passed a field of farmworkers wearing baseball caps draped with red and blue bandannas to protect their necks from the blazing sun. They moved through the rows of vines, clipping off clusters of table grapes and placing them in bins. It was 110 degrees, but they wore jeans and long-sleeved shirts.

From our air-conditioned vehicle, my husband, Teo, and 16-year-old son, Miro agreed: It was hard to imagine how these workers did this for nine hours a day—and easy to see why heat-related deaths are a real risk for farmworkers.

After spending time at a squatter camp with no running water, the Joads arrived at the relative luxury of Weedpatch and were amazed to see flush toilets. The real camp was built in 1936 by the Farm Security Administration to improve upon the unsanitary conditions at most migrant shantytowns that sprang up during the Depression. Steinbeck spent time at the camp researching his novel.

Today Weedpatch is called the Sunset Labor Camp and still offers seasonal housing to farmworkers. A petite, professionally dressed woman named Albeza Gonzalez is the camp's housing manager. A decade ago, Kern County's Housing Authority razed most of the old houses here and built 88 new wood-frame units. The camp charges migrants $11.50 a day, plus a $150 security deposit, for a two-bedroom duplex. There was a waiting list to get in.

Gonzalez looked out her office window at the rows of tidy, multi-bedroom homes and said it was paradise compared with the conditions she'd experienced as the daughter of migrant workers. Her family moved around to pick grapes, melons, peppers, and tomatoes, living in shacks that were little more than "four walls and a door."

"Dustbowlers" in the Valley

All that remains of the original Weedpatch camp are a few old buildings with peeling turquoise paint: the community center, the library, the post office, and one of the tin shacks where the early migrants stayed. When we arrived at the community center, a few men in overalls were installing lights on ladders in the newly renovated building.

We met Dale and Jerry Gibson, two brothers who grew up at the Sunset Labor Camp and now volunteer to help fix up its historical buildings. The locals call them "Dustbowlers," even though the Gibson family didn't arrive at the camp from Stigler, Oklahoma, until 1945, a full decade after Black Sunday, the worst of the epic dust storms that created the Dust Bowl and drove tenant farmers west.

When Dale and Jerry described their childhoods, it sounded as if they grew up on a Catskills movie set for the movie Dirty Dancing. The place was full of music, and girls and boys went to dances and put on Christmas pageants and played basketball.

One big change from the days of the Dust Bowl, of course, is that farmworkers today are mostly Mexicans rather than "Okies," desperate white people from Oklahoma and elsewhere in the Midwest. Some of today's seasonal workers migrate here for the summer from Texas or southern California, but many live in the valley year-round as undocumented immigrants.

When we visited Earlimart, California, to wash our clothes at the AK Laundry, the town looked as if it had been transplanted from Jalisco, Mexico. Many of its businesses bore the Mexican state's name: Jalisco Carnicería, Jalisco Panadería, and Jalisco Taquería sold biftecas, tortas, and tacos.

Sunbaked, one-story homes and trailers were set back from the street behind fences topped with broken bottles and barbed wire. Okies such as Dale and Jerry have prospered, but today's farmworkers living in towns like Earlimart remain deeply impoverished.

Productive but Hungry

This was the paradox that struck me when Miro and I volunteered a few days later at the Cap-K Food Bank in Bakersfield: Although the San Joaquin Valley has long been one of the most productive agricultural regions in the country, it's also one of the poorest and hungriest.

The food bank's volunteer coordinator, Yazid Alawgarey, gave us a tour of the warehouse, filled to the rafters with boxes of canned vegetables, fruits, and meats; bags of rice and beans; boxes of pasta. He explained that the agency normally fed 30,000 people a month but that demand was way up. More farmworkers than usual were unemployed because the drought had kept so many growers from planting crops. If a farmer was lucky enough to own the rights to surface water diverted from rivers or lakes, it was often more lucrative to sell that water to other farmers and let his or her own fields lie dormant.

To get an Okie's perspective on the current drought, we visited Dale Scales, an agricultural real estate tycoon, at his home in Bakersfield.

Scales was a baby, the youngest of six children, when his family migrated from eastern Oklahoma in 1936 with five dollars between them. The family lived in one room at a motor court in Earlimart, and his parents picked figs in nearby orchards. His mother would soak her hands at night to wash off the figs' milky acid, to keep them from chapping.

In 1984, National Geographic's Chris Johns photographed Scales for an article that retraced the Dust Bowl migrants' journey. In the picture, Scales posed in front of the motor court wearing a ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots, resting one leg on his '72 Excaliber, a custom-built car on a Corvette chassis.

Scales is a big man, with big hands. He's proud to be an Okie—especially one of those who made a fortune after moving here.

At 79, Scales still cuts deals in Bakersfield's cafés and diners, mostly repeat business from farmers who were his students back when he taught agriculture at a local college. He let us sample the figs he grows in his orchard. He knows his horticulture, viticulture, agronomy, hydrology. He can draw you a map of the region's many water districts.

Scales believes the main cause of the agricultural drought is not failing rains but water politics. California's bounty rests on a precarious system of aqueducts and canals and pumps that divert surface water from rivers and lakes onto fields. When snow doesn't fall in the mountains, and rain in the valley goes from 12 to three inches a year, the whole system falls apart.

Last March, a California appeals court upheld limits on water diversions to agriculture to protect smelt in the Sacramento Delta. The health of the smelt is seen by environmentalists as key to protecting California's fragile ecosystem. But the ruling infuriated Scales. "We would not be in a drought if they would just open up the pumps," he said.

A Reverse Migration

His opinion and his anger are shared by Carla Eggman, a farmer in Terra Bella who has spent the past few years watching her orange trees die. A freckled woman with red hair, Carla said her grandfather was an Okie who settled in California during the Depression. For decades, snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada helped her family grow the sweetest oranges in California.

We met Carla while working with a team of Habitat for Humanity volunteers who were building a fence around a new house in Porterville. The work started early, but there was no escaping the heat. Miro took to the work with gusto as we hoisted shovels and poured cement with the sun glaring overhead. It gave us a taste of what farmworkers deal with every day.

In conversations during water breaks, Carla fumed as she complained about the water restrictions. "They'd rather see humans starve than let a little fish die," she said. The final blow came when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cut Terra Bella's water allocation to zero last summer—a death sentence in this citrus capital.

"We're becoming a Dust Bowl ourselves," Carla said. "My son already took off to Oklahoma because he couldn't get a job here. So we're doing a reverse migration."

After a week in the Central Valley, I was oddly reluctant to head to the West Coast and ultimately to San Francisco, where we'd drop off our rented SUV and fly home to Washington, D.C. The coast is the California I know best, having lived in Berkeley and San Francisco for 13 years. It is where Miro was born, in full view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet on this trip I'd developed a fondness for the coast's ugly stepsister.

On our last day in the valley, on a road near Tulare, I was tired and hot and a little sad as I took a picture out the window of the SUV without realizing the camera was in selfie mode. My face looked tense and haggard, my skin patterned with freckles I'd collected from working in the sun. I sat in the backseat and re-read passages from The Grapes of Wrath to remind myself of the exact place where the Joads' journey had come to an end.

When I read Tom Joad's heartbreaking goodbye scene with Ma outside Tulare, I got a lump in my throat and wet eyes. Steinbeck had brought these characters to life for me—and influenced the way I'd interacted with so many people along the way.

As we drove up Highway 1 toward Big Sur and our road trip came to an end, I suddenly realized: The Joads never even saw the Pacific.

Follow Barbara Paulsen on Twitter.

Read the other installments in this series:

Part 1: Across Plains, 'Grapes of Wrath' Still Resonates

Part 2: Rediscovering Route 66, America's 'Mother Road'

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