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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle

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Americans have often defined themselves through their relationship to the land. This program traces the social fiction of three key American voices: John Steinbeck, Carlos Bulosan, and Helena María Viramontes.

Instructor Overview

The writers and works in Unit 12 explore the unfulfilled promises of the American Dream for segments of the population of the United States, especially immigrants and impoverished, dislocated workers. These “migrants” have the greatest confidence in the promises the United States has to offer; yet, ironically, these are the very people often denied access to its bounty. The coexistence of the migrants’ disillusionment and their continued faith in the promise of America informs many of these works. Much of the literature of the migrant struggle explores human relationships with the environment and the land, especially in the West. Though modern economic systems tend to look at nature only as a commodity, writers from Thoreau to Viramontes resist or reject that view. Indeed, they are part of a tradition of writers and thinkers who, since the earliest days of the United States, have emphasized a strong bond between people and the land. In the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, this bond gradually loosened, as technology and inexpensive labor allowed those who owned or controlled the land to work it less themselves and turn their energies toward increasing its productivity. Unfortunately, these changes had negative consequences. Poor land conservation practices and a long and severe drought eventually led to the environmental disaster known as the Dust Bowl during the 1930s.

The writers in this unit share an interest in the effects of economic and political systems on workers, writers, and activists. In their works, the losers tend to be ethnic immigrants and unskilled workers, those at the bottom of the hierarchy of business, industry, and American society itself. Many of these workers have been, and remain today, lower-class laborers of color; some are not U.S. citizens. Migrant workers labor at back-breaking picking and planting jobs few white middle-class Americans would want, and even today they are often denied basic employment benefits and rights.

In many ways, the cultural and literary contributions of those labeled “migrants” are just now becoming more broadly recognized. Though Carlos Bulosan gained national popularity during the 1940s as a spokesperson for Filipinos and other immigrants, the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted him in the 1950s for his socialist activities, and he died in relative obscurity. Other writers in this unit enjoyed more lasting acclaim. John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, for example, still resonates in the American consciousness with its story of a family of “Okies” looking for a better life on the West Coast. Steinbeck’s reshaping of the American epic around the family and the worker, instead of around the solitary male hero, marked an important turning point in American literature.

As the writers in this unit show, the stories of the migrant struggle in American literature and American culture are as diverse as the people who live such struggles every day. Helena Maria Viramontes graphically reworks Steinbeck’s story of migrant workers in Under the Feet of Jesus, this time through the eyes of a young Latina woman. Viramontes offers a totally different cultural perspective, but she also demonstrates that conditions have only slightly improved for migrants in the fifty years since Steinbeck’s novel first appeared. Henry David Thoreau’s ecological writing celebrates America, while his call for civil disobedience criticizes its faults. Robinson Jeffers’s works convey both his love of the American landscape and his concern about the encroachment of civilization upon this landscape. This unit also explores works by leftist poet Muriel Rukeyser as well as those by Rudolfo Anaya, Tomas Rivera, and Alberto Ríos, who portray the lives of Latinos in the United States.

The literature of the migrant struggle often depicts characters with much stronger connections to the land than those who own it. From Thoreau to Steinbeck to Viramontes, these writers provide keen observations of the cultural changes occurring in the United States, with the rise of complex social structures made more and more possible by emerging technologies such as railroads, factories, and large corporate farms. These writers ask what is lost with this rise of technology and the lessening of direct connections to the land. Migrant workers often lose a sense of home as the agricultural industry envisions them as replaceable and disposable human harvesting-machines. Yet because these workers rely upon their burdensome work with the soil and its products to survive, they perceive the land as their only hope. They partake in the production of America’s natural bounty but do not profit from their work. Not surprisingly, many of the texts discussed in this unit portray migrants as outsiders who see America’s faults and virtues more clearly than do less marginalized members of American society.

The video, archive, and instructional materials accompanying this unit explore a wide and diverse range of writers who are linked more by theme than by time period. Most of the unit focuses on the period from the 1930s through the end of the twentieth century. The key issues covered are the migrant work force, immigration, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, WPA documentary photography and film, socialism, communism, the rise of unions, and the farm workers movement.

Learning Objectives

After students have viewed the video, read the headnotes and literary selections in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and explored related archival materials on the American Passages Web site, they should be able to

  1. understand the various expressions of migrant workers and the conditions they lived in and labored under;
  2. discuss the impact on American literature and culture of these writers’ emphasis on natural geographical settings and distinctive regional and ethnic customs;
  3. discuss the importance of race, class, gender, culture, and socio-economic position in migrant workers’ stories;
  4. discuss the cultural values and assumptions that inform the differing migrant struggles examined in this unit;
  5. understand the basic economic and environmental causes that led to a rise in the number of migrant and displaced workers in twentieth-century America;
  6. understand eco-literature and the influence of the environment and the land on writers, literature, and society in relation to the rise of industrialization and technology.

Using the Video

Video Authors:
John Steinbeck, Carlos Bulosan, Helena Maria Viramontes

Who’s Interviewed:
Cherrie Moraga, Chicana/ Lesbian playwright and artist-in-residence (Stanford University); Louis Owens, professor of English (Choctaw/ Cherokee) (University of California, Davis); Vicky Ruiz, professor of history and Chicano/Latino studies (University of California, Irvine); Sonia Saldivar-Hull, professor of English (University of Texas, San Antonio); Greg Sarris, professor of English (Loyola Marymount University) (Miwok Chief/Pomo); Helena Maria Vira-montes, author

Points Covered:

  • American identity is a fluid concept that is defined in part by those who are pushed to the margins of American society.
  • The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the mid-1930s are foundational settings for many of these works.
  • Eco-literature emphasizes people’s relationships to the environment and often focuses on social justice.
  • John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, generating attention and sympathy for the midwestern migrant workers who attempted to find employment in California during the Dust Bowl years. The Grapes of Wrath can be understood as a jeremiad: a literary work prophesying doom, or a lament or sermon recommending an immediate change in behavior or practices. Like many of the other works discussed in this unit, The Grapes of Wrath ends with an affirmation of humanity’s basic goodness and a sense of hope for the future.
  • Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart explores the American Dream‘s promises and questions whether it is possible for all. Bulosan was one of many leftist artists and writers blacklisted during the anti-communism of the 1950s.
  • The rise of farmworkers’ unions in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the civil rights movement. Helena Maria Viramontes is one of many important Latina writers that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. Her novel Under the Feet of Jesus depicts strong and enduring female Mexican American characters.


  • Preview the video: In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, waves of immigrants came to the United States from Europe and Asia seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Some came to escape hardship or oppression at home, or for freedom of religion, but many wished to pursue the American Dream. The idea that America’s natural bounty was so large that it could accommodate all newcomers was appealing. After buying into the promises of this dream, however, many immigrants and migrants experienced a different reality. They discovered that only difficult low-paying jobs were available to them and that racism, prejudice, and hostility greeted them at nearly every turn. The writers discussed in the video offer glimpses of what it was, and is, like to be a marginalized person in the United States.
  • What to think about while watching: What relationship have Americans had with the land? What does the American landscape mean to us? What power attaches to images such as “amber fields of grain,” “purple mountain majesties,” redwood forests, sweeping rivers, and unending cornfields. Is America’s bounty meant to be available to everyone or only to a few? Who partakes in the advantages of the American way of life? Who doesn’t? Who decides who participates?
  • Tying the video to the unit content: Unit 12 materials incorporate a wide range of information that enhances and expands on the topics in the video and places these topics within a broader cultural and historical context. The materials also include information on additional writers associated with this unit in order to sample a wider range of migrant literature as well as eco-literature. For example, Robinson Jeffers displays a love of the American landscape while also admonishing those who destroy it in the name of capitalism. Muriel Rukeyser’s verse explores the perils of labor and the promises of unionization. Rudolfo Anaya, Tomas Rivera, and Alberto Ríos all contribute to a larger picture of what it is like to be a marginalized ethnic worker in the United States while at the same time presenting the complex culture of Latino or Hispanic heritage. The unit also explores historical contexts relevant to this literature, including the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, the Works Progress Administration, documentary photography and films, socialism and communism, and the rise of trade unions, especially the farmworkers’ unions.

Suggested Author Pairings

Carlos Bulosan and Helena Maria Viramontes
Both Bulosan and Viramontes focus on the importance of family and the connections among family members. How do these authors demonstrate the effects of class restrictions and racism on the family? How does each of them demonstrate the value of family in hard times? Do they have different approaches to their treatment of family issues? Which author seems more celebratory of family connections and relationships? Why might this be?

Henry David Thoreau and John Steinbeck
Both Thoreau and Steinbeck explore the social and moral disadvantages of increased mechanization and technology. Their harsh criticisms of “progress” and technology may seem counterintuitive to many Americans. After all, most of our institutions, and certainly the popular press, seem to praise these advances. Do these writers offer effective arguments against technology? How do their treatments of this subject overlap? How do they differ?

Helena Maria Viramontes and Tomas Rivera
Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus details the physical labor performed by migrant workers, while Rivera’s . . . y no se lo tragó la tierra/ . . . And the Earth Did Not Devour Him more subtly alludes to such labor. Both works are coming-of-age stories as well as testimonios, narratives that bear witness to the migrant worker’s plight. What effects do these themes have on the reader? How do Viramontes’s and Rivera’s representations of physical labor illuminate these themes?

Henry David Thoreau and Carlos Bulosan
In their writings, both Thoreau and Bulosan combine events from their own lives with events that happened to others. Discuss autobiography as a genre, and consider whether it is possible for any author to write an autobiography that is entirely without embellishment of some kind. Such a discussion could start with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, which begins with a letter of advice about growing up to a son who was in fact already grown when the Autobiography was written. Thoreau takes an experience that occurs over two years and condenses it to one in Walden; in addition, he downplays the extent to which his mother and sister made his “simple life” possible. Likewise, many of the events that Bulosan writes about in the first person in America Is in the Heart never really happened to him.


American Dream – The belief that a better life is possible for anyone in the United States. Because of its near mythic status, the “American Dream” means different things to different people. One component of the American Dream is seen in the rags-to-riches tales of Benjamin Franklin and the nineteenth-century “Ragged Dick” stories. Another component is the notion of America as the “Gold Mountain,” put forth by Chinese immigrants who came to the western United States in the 1850s, during the Gold Rush years, to make their fortunes. Sadly, few of them earned enough to pay for passage home and instead became miners, railroad builders, fishermen, service workers, and menial laborers.

blacklist – A list of persons or organizations that have incurred disapproval or suspicion and are to be denied employment or otherwise penalized. Suspicions of communism led to many Hollywood writers and producers/directors being blacklisted in the 1950s.

Chicano/Chicana – A Mexican American man or woman. Originally a derogatory term, it has been reclaimed as an acceptable, indeed proud, designation.

Chicano movement – A Mexican American movement to obtain civil rights and better wages and working conditions, improve educational opportunities, and increase appreciation for Chicano/a fine arts.

Dust Bowl – The area in the Midwest affected by a four-year drought (1935-39) that destroyed all cash crops and caused much of the topsoil to be stripped away by the wind in terrible dust storms.

eco-literature – Writing that explores our relationship to the environment and the land around us; nature writing. Eco-literature often combines stories of the land with tales of social injustice.

Great Depression – The period of great economic downturn in the United States and the world from 1929 to the early 1940s.

Hispanic – See Latino/Latina.

jeremiad – A literary work prophesying doom or a sermon strongly recommending an immediate change in behavior or practices.

Latino/Latina – A person of Latin American descent, often living in the United States. The American Heritage Dictionary notes that, although “Hispanic” and “Latino” are often used interchangeably, they are not identical. “Hispanic” is more global, referring to Spanish-speaking peoples around the world. But for some segments of the Spanish-speaking population, “Hispanic” can be offensive, bearing a stamp of Anglo labeling, whereas “Latino/Latina” is more a term of ethnic pride and distinct associations with a Latin American background.

magical realism – A primarily Latin American literary movement that arose in the 1960s. The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier first applied the term to Latin American fiction in 1949. Works of magical realism combine realistic portrayals of ordinary events with elements of fantasy and myth, creating a fictional world both familiar and dreamlike. The best-known practitioner of magical realism is Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who has used the technique in such novels as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

marginalize – To relegate or confine to a lower social standing or to proscribe as an outsider.

migrant workers – Workers who must travel to find employment. The term is often associated with agricultural workers on the West Coast and in the South.

modernism – A literary movement that reached its peak in the 1920s, modernism developed in two rather different strands. American modernism, as practiced by Williams and Hughes, is characterized by an interest in portraying ordinary subject matter by using concrete, vernacular language. Modernist poetry written in Europe, as characterized by Eliot, tends to be highly allusive. The poems are nonlinear and often refer to the modern condition, particularly the city, in a deeply critical manner. This strand of modernism tends to use a disembodied voice and a collage-like method.

testimonio – A form of collective autobiographical witnessing that provides a voice to oppressed peoples. It generally plays an important role in developing and supporting international human rights, solidarity movements, and liberation struggles.

trade union – An association of laborers in a particular trade, mostly created to help lobby for higher wages, benefits, and improved working conditions.

Un-American Activities Committee – A committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, created in 1938 to investigate disloyalty and subversive organizations. It is associated today with the excesses of the Cold War and the unwarranted national fear of a communist takeover.

WPA – The Works Progress Administration, created in 1935 by the Roosevelt administration to provide millions of people with work and sustaining wages by employing them to build roads, beautify buildings, play concerts, and write histories, along with a wide range of other activities.

Bibliography & Resources

Selected Bibliography
Britton, Sheilah. “Discovering the Alphabet of Life.” ASU Research Online.

Cheung, King-Kok, ed. An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Craig, Albert M., et al. The Heritage of World Civilization. Combined Edition. Fifth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2000.

Craven, Wayne. American Art: History and Culture. New York: Brown and Benchmark, 1994.

Cross, Gary, and Rick Szostak. Technology and American Society: A History. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1995.

Daniel, Pete, et al. Official Images: New Deal Photography. Washington DC and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987.

Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 122: Chicano Writers. Detroit: Gale, 1992.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. New York and London: Insight Books, 1997.

Hernández, Guillermo E. Chicano Satire: A Study in Literary Culture. Austin: U of Texas P, 1991.

Lim, Shirley Geoklin, and Amy Ling, eds. Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992.

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. “This bridge called my back”: Writings by Radical Women of Color. 2nd. Ed. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, 1983.

Owens, Louis. The Grapes of Wrath: Trouble in the Promised Land. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Reuben, Paul P. Chapter 7: “Early Twentieth Century — Robinson Jeffers.” Perspectives in American Literature — A Research and Reference Guide.

Rodgers, Daniel T. The Work Ethic in Industrial America: 1850-1920. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978.

Ruíz, Vicki. Cannery Women, Cannery Lives: Mexican Women, Unionization, and the California Food Processing Industry, 1930-1950Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1987.

Ryan, Bryan, ed. Hispanic Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors. Detroit: Gale, 1991.

Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. Berkeley : U of California P, 2000.

Shindo, Charles J. “The Dust Bowl Myth.” Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2000.

“Viramontes, Helena Maria.” Contemporary Authors. Vol. 159. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Whitfield, Stephen J. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1991.

Further Resources
Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s by Artists and Administrators of the WPA Federal Art Project. Ed. and with an introduction by Francis V. O’Connor. Greenwich: New York Graphic Society, 1973.

“By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA, 1933-1943.” Teaching Resources, The Library of Congress. Also DeNoon, Christopher, Posters of the WPA. Los Angeles: Wheatley, 1987.

El Teatro Campesino: From the Fields to Hollywood (CD-ROM). El Teatro Campesino, P.O. Box 1240, San Juan Bautista, CA 95045. [email protected].

El Teatro Campesino Archives 1964-1988, California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives, Department of Special Collections, Donald C. Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106. Phone: (805) 893-8563. Galería de la Raza/Studio 24, 2857 24th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110. Phone: (415) 826-8009.

Ferris, Susan, writer/producer/director. “The Golden Cage: A Story of California Farmworkers.” Documentary Film. 1990. 29 minutes.

From the Depression to the New Millennium.

The Grapes of Wrath. Film. Starring Henry Fonda, directed by John Ford. 1940.

Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Literature and Its Times. Detroit: Gale, 1997.

Netzley, Patricia D. Social Protest Literature: An Encyclopedia of Works, Characters, Authors and Themes. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1999.

Perez, Severo, director. And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him. Film. Distributed by Facets Video, Kino on Video. 1994. 1 hour, 39 minutes.

Sayles, John, director. Matewan. Feature film about labor unions and a community dominated by a coal-mining company. 1987. Two hours, 12 minutes.

Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women’s History. Ed. by Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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