My grandfather liked to point out that when his family came to California from Arkansas, they came in a 4-year-old car. It wasn’t a beaten-down jalopy as it could have been envisioned by those thinking of the people who escaped the Dust Bowl to make a new life in California.
They were called Okies, but more specifically Arkies, once they arrived with thousands of others to work on large farms to support their families. From there, that side of my family received educations, bought property, had meaningful jobs, built communities and overall became productive citizens.
While the move was difficult, it wasn’t necessarily “The Grapes of Wrath.” It was just a new life in a new land of opportunity. The family grew, worked hard and made something of itself.
Today, no one would say the Mays family is intruders, looking for handouts or creating a burden to our society. At least I hope.
After serving in the U.S. Army during the war, my grandfather went to College of the Pacific in Stockton, now University of the Pacific, and became an accountant for a winery. He also sold cars because he liked to be outside talking to people and, that he, “liked to have a dirt clod to kick around.”
Before my grandmother’s family made the same move from Arkansas to California around the same time, she was showed a photo of my grandfather and told, “there’s a boy you can meet,” to somehow make the move seem better.
They did meet, married young and had four children. Later, they would start a newspaper in Lodi, where my grandmother was editor and my grandfather was publisher. It was a true mom-and-pop.
That’s a bit of my legacy. But it exemplifies, in my mind, that those who come from elsewhere for new opportunity are often the hardest working, and the most interested in bettering their lot in life.
The discrimination during the Dust Bowl era against poor white people, and those of mixed American Indian ancestry as was prominent in both Arkansas and Oklahoma at the time, has been well-documented, and so too are the conditions that led to the pouring in of migrant workers into California in the 1930s. Those stories I heard were never accompanied by the abject discrimination that many migrants faced during those times. I learned that later on my own. I will never know if it didn’t happen to them or if they just didn’t want to talk about it.
I do know it was a mass exodus with many heading south to Los Angeles and others heading north to the fertile Central Valley. Many ended up in San Joaquin County, like my family. I still have family there, and have fond memories of spending summers on my grandparents’ farm. It was formative in that it taught me self-reliance, an appreciation of the earth and what it provides and the importance of both family and community connections. I recall going to the Lockeford grocery store with my grandmother and the extended time it would take because people would share stories with her. She knew farmers, and was in constant contact with the conditions they faced whether it be financial, family, business or weather. She knew those who made up the fabric of the community and tried to capture that on the pages of her newspaper.
Today, I see in our most recent immigrants who also came here looking for a better place for their families the stories that are likely similar to those in my lineage. Seeking opportunity and contending with outsider status are timeworn human conditions. Whether by coyote, jalopy or 4-year-old car, we come to make a better life for ourselves and our family.
Time changes the situations each generation of migrants face. What may seem like sepia history smoothed by time was severe in its day-to-day challenges. It is like that with history, and today’s challenges are no different — just closer. There is no way I would not call myself a proud Californian and, with time, it is my hope the current generation of immigrants will also call themselves the same, along with growing pride in our nation and its ever-evolving manifest of liberty and opportunity. I also strongly believe that those of us here now can welcome them and show them the open ways of today’s California and assist in ensuring our nation’s initial clarion call of equality sounds for all now and into the future. After all, we have made progress, have we not?
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.