How Was Life Like for Migrant Workers in the 1930s?

Life for migrant workers in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, was an existence exposed to constant hardships. Such difficulties included homelessness, dispossession, serial unemployment, discrimination, violence and even persecution. There was frequently endless competition for underpaid work in regions foreign to them and their families.

Some of the migrants worst affected by the Depression were Mexicans and Mexican-Americans working in California, who had done rather well working on American farms before the Depression. With the onset of the Depression, however, those of Mexican origin were constantly blamed for taking jobs away from white Californians, and they were often targeted rhetorically by white trade unions, and in some cases even isolated for repatriation to Mexico.

In Oklahoma, the Dust Bowl destroyed vast swathes of farmland, causing many to be evicted from long-held family properties. Consequently, hundreds of thousands sought work in California and other western states, where they, too, gained status as outsiders, pejoratively called “Okies.” Because of the massive influx of potential workers, some Californian farmers took advantage, forcing laborers to work for paltry rates or not at all. By the middle of the decade, around 7,000 migrants were entering California monthly, and by 1936, Los Angeles authorities attempted to stem the tide by expelling some newly arrived people back into Arizona. The plight of the Okies is the principal plot line of John Steinbeck’s now famous, though still controversial, novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” a work that chronicles the exodus of the fictional Joad family, its search for work, starvation, existence in temporary squatter camps and quest to overcome the circumstances of migration during said period. Steinbeck gained some firsthand knowledge while reportedly spending times in camps like those mentioned in the novel.