their graves, so could photogpraher Horace Bristol, painter Maynard Dixon, writer Langston Hughes or many other artists who decried the exploitation of California migrant workers in the 1930s.
The problem continues to persist _ many fieldworkers are treated like dirt, or worse, because soil is finite and can produce food which can produce money, while migrant fieldworkers seem to be infinite so are of much less value.
An Associated Press story today by Garance Burke _ and it's great to see journalism with guts _ reports that in the last three years in California eleven farmworkers have died ``in possible heat stroke deaths,'' none of which needed to happen.
Burke writes that only firefighters as a profession suffer from heat strokes at a higher rate than fieldworkers. The story speaks of fieldworkers ``crouching under tractors'' for shade; of a pregant teenager dying after a day's work in a vineyard; of a grower having a ``fine'' reduced to $250 after a worker's death; of another grower being fined for offering nothing to drink to his workers but a ``jug of foul, undrinkable water.''
These are just some growers, of course, many being caring, considerate people, but to those to whom money is everything and greed fathomless, even gruudgingly providing shade or clean water seems too much to cede. Said the sister of a worker who died of heat stroke, ``People's lives are being lost, but sometimes I wonder if anyone cares if another Mexican immigrant dies.''
Lange and Bristol cared, of course, and their photographs of gaunt, ill ``Okies'' haunted a nation. Lange has been accused of creating some scenes, manipulating her figures. But then, most art requires some manipulation and no one could deny (well, they did anyway) in the 1930s that fieldworkers and their children were ill and, in many cases, dying.
Lange influenced her husband, the great Western artist Maynard Dixon, and for a period in the 1930s his art changed from Western vistas and images of Native Americans to hobos (``bindlestiffs'' I think they were called at the time), broken men on the road or camping in the California hills and Nevada desert or making their way through dark inner city alleys, powerful, tragically moving images.
Lange and Dixon knew Steinbeck: I recently came across an inscription in a book from Steinbeck _ from the mid-1930s when Steinbeck was living in Pacific Grove, California _ to Dixon, which establishes that connection (another blog on that later). Perhaps Steinbeck was inspired by Dixon's paintings and Lange's photographs _ Dixon's mid-1930s paintings were given titles such as ``No Place to Go'' and ``Okie Camp,'' and his ``Law and Disorder'' shows cops beating a man, conjuring ``Grapes'' and Tom Joad's famous closing speech.
If Dixon and Lange inspired Steinbeck, perhaps Steinbeck inspired the fine California watercolorist Millard Sheets, who came into Pacific Grove in 1938, and, at Steinbeck's invitation, traveled with him up the San Joaquin Valley as the author made final notes for ``The Grapes of Wrath.''
Spontaneous, dramatic watercolors of life in the camps, Sheets' work during this trip is some of his best over a long, distinguished career, and pieces such as ``Mother Bathing Children in Colorado (River) Ditchwater'' could probably play today _ Burke's AP story or Sheets' painting, the water was likely polluted in both cases.
Steinbeck's life was being threatened at the time by those who didn't want ``Grapes'' published, so it took courage for Sheets to accompany him and record the scenes in his art, but then Sheets became an artist correspondent in the coming war, so courage was something he had.
The gifted Langston Hughes was also interested in the migrant fieldworker story, and while in Carmel in 1934 he made several trips into the valley in anticipation of doing something on it. He ended up not, probably because he was chased from Carmel, and in essence California, by vigilantes. Vigilantes make research difficult.
Too bad. His would have been another strong voice, an extremely gifted one. Still, there have been plenty, yet the problems persist because greed persists. It is better than the 1930s, but it is still bad. Maybe it's a case of two steps forward, a step and a half backward.
Nonetheless, what those early writers, photographers and painters did was important and did spur change _ the politicians and legislators would have been decades doing anything if the artists hadn't shamed them; in fact, sometimes they were (often still are) major impediments _ for instance, when ``Grapes'' was published, the wife of a California state senator countered with a novel showing the fieldworkers happy as can be, despite all the famine and dysentery. Even the anti ``Grapes of Wrathers'' had trouble keeping straight faces with that one.
In any case, never underestimate the power of great art. But the lesson of Burke's story is, also never underestimate the power of great greed.
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...