On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps

On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps

On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps

On the Dirty Plate Trail: Remembering the Dust Bowl Refugee Camps

Excerpt

As I complete the final draft of this book, refugees from Hurricane Katrina flee flood-stricken New Orleans and other devastated Gulf cities. Little in the initial response of the federal and state governments to the present calamity shows evidence of having learned from the experience of the Dust Bowl refugees or modeled their relief measures on the Resettlement Administration and its successor, the Farm Security Administration, of seventy years ago.

Longer than recorded history, mass displacements of people, uprooted by famine, war, disease, natural disaster, or economic failure, have created permanent migration flows that move through and around human settlement. In the long chronicle of uprooting and dispossession a single episode resembles every other in its account of losses and gains; only the proportion of each differs. Forced by extenuating circumstances or drawn by the promise of a better life, people will take great personal risks, severing ties with place, loosening personal bonds, forgoing familiar resources. They become migrants: marketable human commodities, statusless outsiders, figures in statistical surveys. The terms of their contingent status frequently compel migrants to accept undesirable living and work conditions, discrimination, and exclusion. As individuals they are condemned to silence, valued for their labor power, not for other human attributes they possess. Driving through California's agricultural valleys travelers glimpse brown-skinned migrants harvesting in fields, timeless figures of toil like Millet's [Gleaners.] In the cities Spanish-speaking workers lay masonry foundations and blow leaves from suburban lawns. Across the land a perpetual flow of migrants moves like shifting currents of water, forming transitory subcultures of work—separate, little noticed, yet indispensable to our economy.

For generations, non-native-born workers—Mexican, Filipino, Asian—have planted, pruned, and harvested California's farmlands . . .

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