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Tensions on the Ranch
The Melting Pot of California Migrant Workers
By Joanna Horowitz

Farm Security Administration migrant labor camp in Calipatria, Imperial Valley, California. There were 155 migrant families in the camp. One third had no work; two-thirds were finding part-time work harvesting spring peas, earning on average four dollars and twenty cents a week. Dorothea Lange, photographer.

In some ways, the men in Of Mice and Men are the lucky ones. They’ve managed to find work—something many others at the time simply couldn’t do. The conditions at the ranch were rough, the farm machinery dangerous, the bunkhouse a pit, but at least there was a paycheck…for the moment.

When Great Depression-induced unemployment reached its peak in the mid 1930s so did racial tensions as Filipino, Mexican, and African American workers were accused of “taking” the jobs of white men. In 1933 in California there were roughly 2.36 workers for each available job. California even passed a state law, the Alien Labor Act of 1931, that made it illegal for businesses in partnership with government agencies to employ those considered "foreign."

Farms like the one in Of Mice and Men still employed a large number of migrant workers—from other states or other countries. But the cross section of backgrounds ratcheted up tension as the farm became its own microcosm of the American melting pot. Here’s a look at some of the people that might intersect at a ranch like the one in Of Mice and Men.

Dust Bowl Migrants

The Great Depression and the severe droughts of the Dust Bowl (1930-1936) forced many workers to move for work. With their farmland stripped and their homes abandoned or seized in foreclosure, more than two million people fled the Dust Bowl. Newspapers ads placed by California farms promised a “poor man’s heaven” with abundant crops and long growing seasons. Images of a sunny, fertile landscape drew workers west.

The reality was a little different. Yes, the weather was mild and the fields lush, but the state was soon overrun with migrants, and many were turned away at the border. Those who made it through found that jobs were scarce. Workers were forced to move from camp to camp in search of jobs.

In the play, George and Lennie are California migrants: they grew up in a town called Auburn, just north of Sacramento. But like the Dust Bowl migrants, they’re forced to move from town to town in search of jobs.

Filipino Workers

Filipinos began migrating to California by the thousands during the mid-1920s, primarily to work as farm laborers. At the time, the islands of the Philippines were a U.S. territory, and Filipino immigrants were colonial subjects. While they were allowed to travel within the U.S., they were denied citizenship and not allowed to own property or establish businesses on American soil. By the 1930s, there were almost 45,000 Filipinos in California, and men outnumbered women 20 to 1.

In Of Mice and Men, none of the characters are specifically identified as Filipino, but the men talk about the Filipino workers—albeit not in a very positive light. Interestingly, though, Director Jerry Manning cast Asian actor Ray Tagavilla as Carlson, adding another dimension to the character and to the character interactions.

Mexican Workers

Steinbeck doesn’t touch much on Mexican workers in the play, but in reality they were—as they still are today—a huge part of the agricultural business. From 1900 to 1930, roughly 10 percent of Mexico's population immigrated into the United States. By the 1920s, at least three quarters of California's 200,000 farm workers were Mexican or Mexican American. In California, the new Mexican workforce picked the crops and tended the fields that U.S. workers had abandoned for better-paying jobs.

When the Depression hit and competition of jobs was fierce, California began to more vigorously crack down on illegal immigration. In 1933, Los Angeles County hired over a dozen trains to deport more than 10,000 Mexicans who had been on county relief rolls. Soon after, in 1935, the California Relief Administration began denying public aid to Mexicans across the state. Between 1929 and 1935, the federal government played a direct role in deporting 82,000 Mexicans.

African American Workers

The problems of the Great Depression affected virtually every group of Americans. But no group was harder hit than African Americans. By 1932, approximately half of black Americans were out of work. Racial violence escalated in the South, and in the North whites called for blacks to be fired as long as there were white workers in the dole line.

On the ranch in the play, the workers have imposed their own segregation: Crooks is forced into isolation, and he lives alone in a room in the stable. The use of the ‘N’ word further illustrates the racism present at the time.

Women

The ratio of men and women in Of Mice and Men (9:1) is true to the time. Ranch workers were almost entirely male. While the number of married women in the work force actually increased by 50 percent between 1930 and 1940, those were primarily factory and clerical jobs. Thirty-six percent of working wives entered domestic and personal services, while another twenty percent were in apparel and canning factories. And a fact that still lingers today: women made less money than men for the same job. In 1939, the median salary of a male teacher was $1,953 a year, while female teachers received $1,394.

The one woman in Of Mice and Men, Curley’s Wife, doesn’t work. She’s isolated on the ranch, spending her days wandering, objectified by the men who view her only as a sex symbol. Hungry for the company of women, the men of the ranch frequent local prostitutes.

 

Statistical information about Filipino workers from http://www.weareca.org/index.php/en/era/WWI-1940s/filipinos.html

Statistical information on Mexican workers from http://www.weareca.org/index.php/en/era/WWI-1940s/mexicans.html

Statistical information on African American workers from http://rs6.loc.gov:8081/learn/features/timeline/depwwii/race/race.html

Statistical information on women from http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1988-9/moran.htm