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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle Migrant Struggle – Activities

Overview Questions

  • How do the writers in this unit reflect the distinct cultures and experiences of different ethnic and socio-economic groups, including Sinclair’s portrayal of European immigrants, Bulosan’s depictions of Asian immigrants, and the Latino/a representations in the works of Viramontes, Rivera, and Ríos?
  • How do these works represent gender?
  • How do we have to expand our definitions of what is considered American after we read these works? Is citizenship the only thing that makes one an American? What other factors should one consider?
  • How do these works “give voice” to those who do not usually have a voice in our society?
  • What are the distinguishing characteristics of the many works depicting the migrant story? What cultural values are reflected and promoted in them?
  • What historical events and cultural anxieties in the United States helped to inspire these works? How have economic booms and busts affected the literature about the American landscape and its farmlands?
  • What role do politics and environmental conditions play in these works?
  • In what ways can the stories of migrants and working people represent the stereotypical “American” experience? In what ways are these stories similar to and different from the stories of earlier settlers of the United States, such as the Puritans or those who settled at Jamestown?
  • What negative effects of technology and industrialization are portrayed in these works? What positive effects?
  • How have the plots of these literary works helped to preserve and comment on important moments in U.S. history?
  • Is the theme of “social justice” present in every work? What distinguishes its various treatments?
  • How is the land or the environment used as a repeated symbol in these works?
  • Though most of the characters depicted in these works are considered outsiders or are marginalized by society, how can they also be considered universal? How do their struggles and dreams relate to all of us?
  • How do these works participate in or challenge racial stereotypes, especially concerning Filipinos and Latinos/as?
  • How is class-consciousness present in migrant representations of American life? What classes of people are depicted in these texts? How do the different classes treat each other?
  • Do these works demonstrate that everyone can achieve the American Dream?

Video Activities

How do place and time shape literature and our understanding of it?
Video Comprehension Questions: How is the West positively portrayed in early-twentieth-century American literature and culture? How does this change in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s?
Context Questions: How have the geography and resources of the United States influenced American culture? How have Americans used and abused the land?
Exploratory Questions: To what extent is the American Dream dependent on the bounty promised by the land? How do politics influence these works? Are American ideals considered, examined, and evaluated most during times of crisis?

What is American literature? What are its distinctive voices and styles? How do social and political issues influence the American canon? 
Video Comprehension Questions:What is eco-literature? What is testimonio?
Context Questions: Why might Bulosan and his works have been “lost” for half a century? What forces worked against him, and what forces later advocated for him? Why did Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath receive social and political criticism when it was first published? How is Under the Feet of Jesus a feminist story? How does this affect its social message?
Exploratory Questions: Why is it so difficult for the impoverished and for minorities to make their stories heard? What is the role of literature in providing a voice for these struggles, and how does this form of expression relate to those used in politics or the media?

How are American myths created, challenged, and reimagined through these works of literature?
Video Comprehension Questions: What is a jeremiad, and how does Steinbeck use this form?
Context Questions: How does Steinbeck show that the American Dream can be dangerous? How is that reaffirmed by Viramontes? Does the promise of “home” play an important role in the works discussed in this unit? What about in the works of Viramontes and Rivera?
Exploratory Questions: What is the American Dream? How has the American Dream changed over time? How do diverse cultures view the American Dream? How have significant historical events affected the dream? How will new opportunities and threats in the twenty-first century challenge the American Dream? What is your version of the American Dream? Who might be able to achieve your version of the dream, and who might not be able to achieve it?

Creative Response

  1. Poet’s Corner: Describe what “being an American” means to you. What makes Americans distinctive? Make a list of American characteristics. Now write a free-verse poem that explains why you do or do not see yourself as “American.” Use Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” as a model for your poem.
  2. Creative Writing: Write a creative story about one day in the life of a person in a small midwestern town on the eastern edge of the state on a major East-West interstate highway. A highly contagious disease has broken out on the East Coast, and people are fleeing that part of the country and coming west in great numbers. No one knows who might be carrying the disease. How would you react to these travelers? What do the officials of your town and state do to protect residents from this disease? Include a scene of confrontation. Use Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as a model.
  3. Journal: Have you ever entered an environment in which you felt like an outsider? Perhaps you left home to go to college or moved to a new town or visited another country? Did you at times feel powerless, voiceless? Did you feel like you had little control over your own life? Describe the situation and what it felt like. How did you handle it? Now interview others using these questions, including students, relatives, or your parents. Write down your observations in a journal.
  4. Letter Writing: Assume the role of Helena Maria Viramontes. Have Viramontes write a letter to John Steinbeck, explaining to Steinbeck what he left out or got wrong about migrant workers in The Grapes of Wrath. Then, write a reply from Steinbeck to Viramontes.
  5. Letter Writing: Write a letter to a local, state, or national politician explaining a situation that you would like to see changed. Use an activist’s voice, and list the reasons why the present situation is unfair and the changes you’d like to see take place. Justify the expenditure of money it would take to enact your changes.
  6. Presentation: Tackle a project on any of the themes associated with this unit, such as migrant workers, labor unions, environmentalism, the Great Depression, or the Dust Bowl. Create a poster, put together a videotape, do a PowerPoint presentation, write and produce a radio play, make a map, or anything else that inspires you to explore your theme in more depth.

Problem-Based Learning Projects

“How can I get my students to think?” is a question asked by many faculty, regardless of their disciplines. Problem-based learning (PBL) is an instructional method that challenges students to “learn to learn,” working cooperatively in groups to seek solutions to real world problems. These problems are used to engage students’ curiosity and initiate learning the subject matter. PBL prepares students to think critically and analytically, and to find and use appropriate learning resources.” — Barbara Duch, University of Delaware

  1. Imagine that you have been asked to create a museum exhibit on the migrant struggle in the United States. Using the archive and literature in this unit, choose ten to fifteen items that you feel are representative of this topic. Then write a justification for the pieces that you will display. How did you decide on these items? What values seem most important in what you have chosen to display? How do your items reflect those values? What does it mean to be a migrant worker in the United States?
  2. You are a high school teacher, and you’ve just finished teaching a unit on Hispanic and Latino/a writers. Imagine that you must now compose an essay exam for your students. Write three questions that you would like to have your students explore. What themes are important to the unit? What symbols or images have remained influential?
  3. Imagine you are on the school board for your local district. A group of parents, students, and teachers has circulated a petition asking that more Hispanic literature that focuses on migrant issues be included in the curriculum. Other parents, students, and teachers have sent letters saying that the current curriculum is fine. The board is going to hold a community meeting to decide the issue. Take the position of wanting to include these works, and prepare a presentation to support your point of view. How will you make your argument? What kinds of evidence will you cite to demonstrate the educational value of these works? How will you construct your argument so that it addresses the concerns of those who think there is no reason to include these works in the curriculum?
  4. You are a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and you’ve been assigned to write an article on how U.S. employers take advantage of migrant workers. You want to begin the article with a history of employer-migrant worker relations in the United States. What would you include in your history? Where would you begin? Which groups would you focus on? What writers would you refer to and why?

The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl

[3343] Dorothea Lange, People Living in Miserable Poverty, Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma (1936), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-009695-E].

The New York Stock Exchange collapse in October of 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression, which lasted until America entered World War II in the early 1940s. The longest and most severe economic depression in American history, the Great Depression caused untold economic hardship and great social upheaval throughout the United States and the world. From 1929 to 1932, stock prices fell dramatically in the United States, with many stocks losing over 80 percent of their value. Banks closed, unemployment skyrocketed, and factory and industrial production fell sharply. By 1932 nearly a third of the workforce in America was unable to find jobs. Many Americans lost their savings, their homes, and their livelihoods. Adding to the nation’s difficulties, the ecological disaster of the Dust Bowl descended on the Midwest between 1935 and 1939. Constant drought and poor land management led to arid, lifeless growing conditions for struggling farmers and sharecroppers and ruined the little livelihood they had during the depression. Over 300,000 people were forced to leave the afflicted area and migrate to the West to look for employment. The advanced mechanization of industry, factory, and farm work also adversely affected some American workers during this period. Many work functions were taken over by machines, causing widespread worker displacement and relocation. The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and other factors caused a massive worker migration to alternate professions and alternate areas of the country. The Great Depression shaped the psyches of an entire generation; those who lived through the depression became acutely aware of the power of broad economic forces to impact individual lives.

The Great Depression helped Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, unseat Herbert Hoover to win the presidency in 1932. Roosevelt quickly enacted major legislative initiatives to help Americans endure and recover from the economic downturn. Increased government regulations, extensive public-works projects, and other measures helped bolster public confidence that the economy would pull out of the depression. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” included a broad range of legislation, such as the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to protect the savings of individuals, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to better regulate the stock market and other areas of investment, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to better ensure the security of mortgages and home loans. The Roosevelt administration also created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to provide work relief and jobs to thousands of out-of-work men and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to assist with flood control and electricity generation. Nineteen thirty-three saw even more New Deal legislation, including an Agricultural Adjustment Act, a National Industrial Recovery Act, the Rural Electrification Administration, and a much-expanded public works effort, managed by the Public Works Administration. Under Roosevelt’s guidance, the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act were passed. These two acts guaranteed the rights of workers to organize and bargain through unions and mandated maximum weekly work hours and minimum wages for many types of employees. The Social Security Act of 1935 helped guarantee unemployment insurance, created a retirement program for all American citizens, and instituted mechanisms to provide aid to dependent children. The unique combination of economic stagnation and disillusionment with big business and laissez-faire capitalism allowed Roosevelt to create and enact an impressive series of liberal reforms and social programs to assist a broad spectrum of the American public.

The effects of the depression were far-reaching on the arts in general and on literature in particular. The sense of loss, alienation, and fragmentation that developed after World War I increased. As the energy of the Roaring ’20s dissipated, literature reflected new enervation and despair. For example, the lighthearted, optimistic tone of many of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s earlier stories is absent from “Babylon Revisited” (1935). The depression also stifled the Harlem Renaissance. As economic resources to support African American writers, musicians, and artists dried up, African American writers and artists became increasingly disillusioned. Such works as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man reflect this pessimistic outlook.


  1. Comprehension: What were the major effects of the Great Depression on the country?
  2. Comprehension: How did the Dust Bowl worsen conditions for many workers?
  3. Comprehension: What was the Roosevelt administration’s response to the Great Depression?
  4. Context: Technology and mechanization helped reduce reliance on unskilled labor in many areas, and many people had to change professions or relocate. At the same time, as the literary works discussed in this unit show, migrant workers were often treated as easily replaceable pieces of equipment and forced to move from location to location. How do the authors in this unit allude to and implicitly or explicitly critique such treatment of humans? You might start with Bulosan’s descriptions of Filipino migrants and compare them to the descriptions of Mexican Americans in Vira-montes’s and Rivera’s works.
  5. Exploration: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning suggests that humor can be an important survival strategy. How does American literature develop humor as a strategy for dealing with oppression? Is there a tie between the works of Mark Twain or Flannery O’Connor and those of writers in this unit, such as Rudolfo Anaya or Tomas Rivera?

[2944] Anonymous, Aaron Douglas with Arthur Schomburg and the Song of Towers Mural (1934),
courtesy of the Arthur Schomburg Photograph Collection, Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. 
Aaron Douglas was commissioned to paint murals for the New York Public Library under the Works Progress Administration. This mural represents the massive migration of African Americans from the South to the urban North during the early twentieth century.

[3334] Anonymous, The Trading Floor of the New York Stock Exchange Just After the Crash of 1929 (1929),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [1930-67B].
Photograph taken from above the stock exchange floor. The crash and ensuing depression brought many expatriate artists back to the United States and diverted the focus of some away from wealth and luxury.

[3343] Dorothea Lange, People Living in Miserable Poverty, Elm Grove, Oklahoma County, Oklahoma (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-009695-E].
In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck depicts the life of Oklahoma farmers during the Dust Bowl, when terrible droughts killed crops and pushed families like the Joads west to California seeking better land and a better life.

[4792] Arthur Rothstein, Farm Sale, Pettis County, Missouri (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-003448-M2].
Rothstein began his photography career while at Columbia University. After graduation, he became the first staff photographer for the Farm Security Administration. He is known mainly for his Dust Bowl images. By documenting the problems of the depression, he helped justify New Deal legislation. He went on to be a photographer for and director of Look magazine. As a child, author Tomas Rivera traveled throughout the Midwest with his parents, who were migrant farm laborers.

[4791] Arthur Rothstein, Erosion on a Missouri Farm (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-001875-E].
Historian Donald Worster’s book Dust Bowl opened people’s eyes to the human causes of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Now ranked among the greatest manmade ecological disasters, the Dust Bowl worsened the effects of the Great Depression.

[5158] Ben Shahn, Men Loafing in Crossville, Tennessee (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-OO6224-M4 DLC].
Unemployed men outside storefront in rural Tennessee during the Great Depression. Eventually, New Deal programs like the Civil Conservation Corps put many back to work on national projects such as road building and maintaining national parks.

[5935] Dorothea Lange, Depression (1935),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. 
Unemployed man leaning against vacant storefront with “for lease” signs. Many lost their jobs and savings during the Great Depression. New Deal photographer Dorothea Lange captured images of the hardships during this time.

Documentary Photography and Film

[3347] Dorothea Lange, Power Farming Displaces Tenants. Childress County, Texas Panhandle (1938), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-TO1-018281-C DLC].

In Official Images: New Deal Photography, Pete Daniel and Sally Stein ponder why so many photographs were taken and viewed during the depression era. They speculate, “Maybe people feeling deprived of material goods were attracted to those images that most closely resembled the look, surface, and solidity of things. Maybe, too, people feeling suddenly insecure about the future were comforted by photography’s apparent matter-of-factness, even when the ‘facts’ were often distressing. Most likely, the appeal of photography contained contradictory impulses: to document and transform, to gain familiarity and distance” (viii). Whatever the reasons, the 1930s were one of the most photographically documented decades of all time.

As the country became more and more divided between those who favored social reform through government intervention and those who did not, documentary photography proved to be a powerful tool on the side of the reformers, revealing to a broad spectrum of the American public the horrific conditions brought on by both the depression and the Dust Bowl. Some of the documentary photographers’ techniques found their way into literary works. For example, Steinbeck’s use of documentary style in depicting people, places, and conditions during the depression contributed to the power of The Grapes of Wrath. And John Dos Passos used techniques he called “the camera eye” and the “newsreel” in Manhattan Transfer (1925) and in the USA Trilogy (The 42nd Parallel [1930]; Nineteen Nineteen [1932]; The Big Money [1936]). Like the documentary photographers, these authors sought to represent the suffering and despair of struggling American workers and families.

Early photographic pioneers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Clarence White helped establish photography as an emerging art form, but social documentary photography actually began with Jacob Riis’s depictions of New York City slums in the 1880s, collected in his book How the Other Half Lives. Riis’s groundbreaking work was followed by Lewis Hines’s images of child labor abuses in factories, mills, and mines. The work of Riis and Hines inspired later photographers who worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). In 1935, the director of the FSA, Roy Stryker, hired a small corps of photographers to help inform the public of the brutal living and working conditions of displaced migrant workers. Among these photographers were Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Walker Evans. Lange and her sociologist husband studied poor farmworkers in southern California. Lange would later travel throughout the country documenting the stories of displaced workers through her images. Shahn, better known as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) painter, also photographed the harsh realities of American farming life, while Evans teamed up with writer James Agee to document southern sharecroppers’ lives in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).

Documentary films also played an important role in depicting American life during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. Partly to communicate to the public what the administration was doing to alleviate the suffering, the Roosevelt administration sponsored a number of documentary films directed by Pare Lorentz. Among these is The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), the first film the United States government produced for commercial distribution. The Plow That Broke the Plains argues that a lack of ecological conservation and misuse of soil could have dire consequences. The film asserts that, by failing to practice land conservation and crop rotation, farmers themselves unwittingly created many of the conditions leading to the Dust Bowl. Many opponents of Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation argued that this and other documentaries were designed to win approval for the broad range of social programs created by the government. Congress held a long and contentious debate about whether to fund the film, and some farmers protested the finished project. Today the film is hailed for its Whitmanesque free-verse script and its powerful and moving musical score. Lorentz’s second Farm Security Administration film, The River, tells the story of the Mississippi River and its many tributaries. The film argues that, by controlling the river with dams, the country could avoid the disastrous seasonal flooding that stripped away valuable topsoil, put hundreds out of work, and destroyed homes and livestock.

Appreciated today primarily for their artistry and their sociological significance, the documentary photography and films of the Great Depression provide an important historical record of the cultural and economic changes that were occurring in the country during that time.


  1. Comprehension: What allowed the depression era to be so well documented?
  2. Comprehension: What were the benefits of government-sponsored documentation of conditions in the country during the depression?
  3. Context: How does the stark realism of these depression-era photographs relate to works by Bulosan, Steinbeck, and Viramontes?
  4. Context: Compare the depression-era Dust Bowl photographs in the archive with pictures from contemporary newspaper articles about poverty (the Associated Press Web site is a good source for such images). Do the depression-era photographs have a distinctive style? Do the contemporary photographs seem more or less powerful to you than their depression-era counterparts? What accounts for these differences?
  5. Exploration: A documentary is a work, such as a film or television program, that presents political, social, or historical subject matter in a factual and informative manner. Documentaries often include photographs, news footage, or interviews and are typically accompanied by narration. Think about photographs or documentaries that you have seen that help illustrate an era, a decade, a cause, or a movement. Search the archive, the Internet, or magazines, especially newsmagazines, for these definitive photographs, and put together a collection. You might focus on the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s; the civil rights movement or Vietnam War protests; the women’s liberation movement or the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. What about these collected photos helps convey a political or social message? How can the viewer judge whether that message is objective and accurate?

[3346] Marion Post Wolcott, Rex Theatre for Colored People. Leland, Mississippi Delta (1944),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-052508-D].
Photograph of front of all-black movie theater in the South. Blacks and whites attended separate theaters and other civic facilities in the South. In the North, African Americans were separated from white audiences for movies, plays, and music by more informal social codes of segregation.

[3347] Dorothea Lange, Power Farming Displaces Tenants. Childress County, Texas Panhandle (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-TO1-018281-C DLC].
Alternately titled “Tractored Out.” Mechanization made large farmers wealthy, but left small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers without jobs. The rising use of machines instead of manual labor, coupled with drought and falling crop prices during the Great Depression, left many farmers homeless.

[4725] Arthur Rothstein, Eroded Land, Alabama (c. 1930s),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [Photographs: FSA: Weather].
Farmer stands outside house, surveying eroded fields. Rothstein began his photography career while at Columbia University. After graduation, he became first staff photographer for the Farm Security Administration. He is mainly known for his Dust Bowl images. He went on to be a photographer for and director of Look magazine.

[4734] Marion Post Wolcott, Picking Cotton Outside Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi (1939),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF33-030629-M3].
Impoverished Mississippi farm worker harvesting cotton. Wolcott was a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration; her poignant photos strengthened support for many New Deal programs. The conflict between sharecroppers and landowners is depicted in William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning.”

[5224] Dorothea Lange, White Sharecropper Family, Formerly Mill Workers in the Gastonia Textile Mills. When the Mills Closed Down Seven Years Ago, They Came to This Farm Near Hartwell, Georgia (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018147-C DLC].
The less glamorous side of rural southern life; a white share-cropping family seated on the porch of their cabin. This family is an example of the poorer, “everyday people” that writers such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty depicted.

Unionism and the Farm Workers Movement

[5864] Dorothea Lange, Mexicans, Field Laborers, on Strike in Cotton Picking Season, Apply to Farm Security Administration for Relief. Bakersfield, California (1938), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018627].

Industry, Perseverance and Frugality, make Fortune yield — Benjamin Franklin

Our movement is spreading like flames across a dry plain. We seek our basic, God-given rights as human beings. We shall do it without violence because it is our destiny. — Cesar Chavez

In some ways, social institutions like trade unions seem to stand in opposition to an American culture that praises hard-working individualism. The first European concepts of America envisioned this land as a new Eden, a place without toil or labor. The early Puritans and, later, the colonists and the citizens of the new Republic reshaped this naïve vision and wrote of the need for the American individual to work hard to tame and civilize a rugged and often hostile land. Benjamin Franklin’s many pithy aphorisms about hard work remain engrained in the American consciousness, though the resonance of the agrarian ideal has faded. The capitalistic excesses of the Gilded Age and the rise of industrial robber barons, who benefited greatly at the expense of the common worker, helped to strip away people’s confidence in their ability to prosper through hard work alone. Capitalism’s excesses are represented in such literary works as Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age (1873), Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), William Dean Howell’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), Frank Norris’s The Octopus (1901), and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).

In the United States, the movement from an agrarian-based economy to an industrial one reflected a shift that had already occurred in much of Europe. Railroads, textiles, and the iron and steel industries all expanded in nineteenth-century America. The labor shortages and relatively good wages that resulted from this industrialization brought two major waves of immigrants from Europe. The first, arriving in the 1840s, included mostly Germans, English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish. The second, in the 1880s, consisted mainly of people from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. This second wave of immigrants was treated more poorly than their predecessors had been. By and large, their assimilation into mainstream American culture was more difficult, as illustrated in literature by the treatment of the Rudkus family in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. On the West Coast, Asian and Latino immigrants were arriving in great numbers and encountering racism as they sought work on the railroads and on large vegetable farms. Such writers as Carlos Bulosan, Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Tomas Rivera explore the stories of these immigrants. On both coasts, many immigrants found themselves working in industries that devalued their humanity by treating them as easily replaceable commodities.

Trade unions had begun to rise in Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century. However, it was not until the formation of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886 that large organized union activities in America began. Union involvement and activity tended to increase during the early twentieth century, but also tended to fluctuate with the economic climate of the times. Originally, formally organized unions were made up almost exclusively of skilled workers. These unionized workers feared the influx of unskilled immigrants into the country and the workforce, and they sought to limit their influence. Early on, the AFL opposed unionization of these unskilled workers and in 1935 expelled a small group of unions that were trying to organize them. The expelled unions formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which later unionized the auto and steel industries. The AFL and CIO eventually merged in 1955.

Union activity in the United States often engendered violence and controversy. Influential industry leaders and large corporate farm owners went to great lengths to prevent or disrupt union activity through the jailing of leaders, the hiring of replacement workers, intimidation, and other legal and illegal means. They feared that unions would lead to higher wages and more benefits for workers, which would in turn make their products more costly and less competitive and thus cut into profits.

Compared to other types of union activity in the United States, the farm workers movement began modestly and relatively late. Led primarily by West Coast migrant workers who labored in fruit, vegetable, and flower fields, the movement attempted to address the harsh working conditions, low wages, substandard housing, and lack of benefits that existed for migrant workers. There had been attempts at addressing farm labor problems in the 1940s and 1950s. A small but active National Farm Labor Union attempted to expand in California in the 1940s and 1950s, but pressure from powerful corporate growers prevented more extensive union activities and membership. These growers relied upon 1951 legislation called Public Law 78, or the Bracero Program, to control Mexican agricultural workers who came to the United States seasonally. Despite union efforts, conditions in the field and wages remained poor. According to one history of the United Farm Workers:

No ranches had portable field toilets. Workers’ temporary housing was strictly segregated by race, and they paid two dollars or more per day for unheated metal shacks — often infested with mosquitoes — with no indoor plumbing or cooking facilities. Farm labor contractors played favorites with workers, selecting friends first, sometimes accepting bribes. Child labor was rampant, and many workers were injured or died in easily preventable accidents. The average life expectancy of a farm worker was 49 years. (UFW History)

In 1959, the AFL-CIO formed the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), which consisted of Filipinos, Chicanos, Anglos, and African Americans. In 1962, Cesar Chavez started the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). These organizations grew slowly, but in 1965 and 1966 a series of strikes finally led the two largest growers on the West Coast to recognize their employees as members of an organized labor union, especially when the two unions combined to create the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC).

As part of the farm workers movement, the Chicano movement was, and is, a force for socio-economic and cultural change in the Mexican American community. The movement generated a cultural renaissance in art, music, literature, and theatre. One of the most distinctive aspects of Chicano expression is El Teatro Campesino, or the Farm Workers’ Theater. Founded in 1965 by Luis Valdez, El Teatro Campesino mounts productions that blend Spanish and English and often include music. Many artistic and political publications, including newspapers, magazines, and journals, arose out of the Chicano movement.

Union activity among farm workers continued to increase in the 1960s and 1970s. Aided by growing public awareness of discrimination against and abuses of minorities, fruit boycotts and other forms of public pressure, along with expanded union membership, eventually helped to provide relief from the worst problems faced by migrant farm workers. However, even today employers exploit migrant workers, and debates about immigration, housing, education, public services, citizenship issues, and discriminatory property ownership laws continue.


  1. Comprehension: Why does the concept of “unionization” sometimes seem at odds with the American Dream?
  2. Comprehension: Why didn’t more widespread unionization of workers take place in the United States before the late 1800s?
  3. Comprehension: What conditions led to the need for trade unions? Why were businesses and corporations opposed to the unions? What did they fear?
  4. Comprehension: How did union activity lead to an artistic renaissance in some communities?
  5. Context: Chapter 21 of The Grapes of Wrath offers a snapshot of some of the economic and cultural issues associated with the distrust of migrants and suggests that the sudden influx of workers into California was dangerous. Identify the particular perspectives or “voices” that Steinbeck presents in this chapter. Were these voices justified in their concerns or not?
  6. Context: How does America Is in the Heart portray attempts to unionize Filipino and other minority migrant workers? What tactics do the local and state authorities and large farm owners use to try and squelch these efforts?
  7. Exploration: Why did the migrant workers see unionization as the best way to improve working conditions and wages? Why didn’t some of the original trade unions for skilled workers want to help unionize unskilled workers?

[5864] Dorothea Lange, Mexicans, Field Laborers, on Strike in Cotton Picking Season, Apply to Farm Security Administration for Relief. Bakersfield, California (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018627].
The Farm Security Administration (1937-42) was formed under the Department of Agriculture. It provided low-cost loans and assistance to small farmers and sharecroppers, constructed camps for migrant workers, restored eroded soil, and put flood prevention practices into effect.

[5869] Dorothea Lange, Filipino Migrant Workers (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018671-D].
Large field with Filipino migrant laborers working in row. Filipinos migrated to the United States in three major waves. The first and second wave faced exploitative working conditions in agriculture, canneries, and other manual labor industries.

[6099] Cesar Chavez, Migrant Workers Union Leader (1972),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [NWDNS-412-DA-1576].
Cesar Chavez speaking at a union event. Chavez organized the National Farm Workers Association in the 1960s to help migrant farm workers gain rights and better working conditions and pay. Lalo Guerrero composed his “Corrido de Cesar Chavez” after reading a newspaper account of Chavez’s twenty-five day fast in 1968.

[6932] Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in S.E. Asia, Pull Him Out Now: Join with the Hundreds and Thousands of Students, GI’s, Women, Unionists, Puerto Ricans, Gay People . . . (c. 1970),
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Political poster protesting U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. The antiwar movement linked and encouraged a number of other movements, including the civil rights movement, the Chicano movement, and the farm worker’s movement. Many American poets protested the war, including Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg.

[8613] Vito Marcantonio, Labor’s Martyrs (1937),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries. 
Socialist publication describing the “great labor martyrs of the past 50 years.” This pamphlet discusses the trial and public execution of “Chicago Anarchists” who organized the Haymarket bombing in 1887, as well as the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 and the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. The pamphlet goes on to talk about the thriving state of the 1930s labor movement.

Socialism and Communism

[7892] Robert Minor, Back cover of The Masses, July 1916 (1916), courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries.

Socialism can be understood as an economic theory or system of social organization whereby the means of producing and distributing goods are collectively owned or controlled. At its heart is the desire for a just and equitable distribution of wealth, property, and labor. Communism is an established system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy with the putative intent that goods should be shared equally among the people.

As industrialization gained momentum and technology improved, skilled workers and artisans became less important to the production of goods and were often replaced by factory wage earners with fewer technical skills. Unskilled workers soon dominated many industries, including shipping, transportation, and building. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, most factories and jobs moved to the cities and unskilled workers followed. In an effort to receive better benefits, pay, and working conditions, these workers began to organize into trade unions. Many union leaders were inspired by socialist ideologies that promised just treatment for workers.

Though the ideals of socialism go back to classical times, contemporary socialism had its roots in the reaction to the industrial age and the treatment of workers as commodities. As the perception grew that capitalism and industrialism were causing widespread suffering, socialists called for fundamental changes to what they perceived as unfair economic and social systems. European socialist leaders championed different versions of socialist ideology. The utopian socialists, such as Comte Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen, envisioned a naturally occurring course of progress for humanity leading to shared wealth and resources for all. These thinkers influenced experiments with utopian societies in America, such as the Oneida Community and Brook Farm, the basis of Hawthorne’s satire in The Blithedale Romance. Scientific socialists, such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, argued that organized trade unions and radical political parties were needed to overthrow capitalist systems. Depictions of unions and leftist ideology appear in the works of Muriel Rukeyser, Carlos Bulosan, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck, as well as in the writings of Ralph Waldo Ellison, Richard Wright, and Chaim Potok.

Some American laborers joined socialist movements, but the majority did not. There were three different socialist parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the Socialist Labor Party, formed in 1876; the Social Democratic Party, formed in 1898; and the Socialist Party, formed in 1901. Eugene V. Debs repeatedly ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket in the early twentieth century, but he never received more than 900,000 votes nationwide. Though socialist party membership dropped off during World War I, it grew somewhat during the Great Depression. After World War II, the Socialist Party in America split into conservative and progressive wings and lost much of its following, partly as a result of the anti-communist sentiment of the late 1940s and 1950s. Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers fostered the perception that socialists and communists were closely associated.

Communism, in a broad sense, refers to radical political movements meant to overthrow capitalist systems of government. After the 1917 Russian Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power, they renamed themselves the Communist Party. Eventually, under Lenin and then Stalin, the Soviet Union became the international leader of the communist movement. Many other countries became communist, including much of Eastern Europe, China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba.

Although governments like that of the Soviet Union called for the overthrow of capitalistic systems, the United States did not perceive international communism as a serious threat until after World War II. A “cold war” began between the Soviet Union and the United States, with each vying for world domination. American fear of communism was enhanced by the emergence of Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin senator who spearheaded an anti-communist campaign from 1950 to 1954. During the same period, in the House of Representatives, the Un-American Activities Committee held numerous highly publicized hearings on suspected communists. The “Red Scare” campaign mounted by McCarthy and the Republican Party alleged that communists had infiltrated America and were intent on overthrowing the country. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible is perhaps the best-known literary response to this era. The anti-communist campaign and the public support it garnered allowed for unscrupulous congressional committee investigations, which Miller likened to the witch trials of centuries before, that sought to discredit or blacklist individuals with “known ties” to communists or socialists, even if those ties were well in the past. Many literary figures and people in the motion picture industry fell victim to these investigations.

The Cold War loomed large in the American consciousness throughout the late 1950s and the 1960s. Films and literature were the primary genres where these concerns surfaced. Movies like Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe expressed anxiety about atomic annihilation. Nuclear holocaust, Russian invasion, and the perceived rise of totalitarianism in American society were all themes in popular books and films like Fahrenheit 451Invasion of the Body SnatchersIt Came from Outer Space, and The Thing. Similar themes appear in such popular works of fiction as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Each novel explores how coping with constant Cold War fears leads to alienation, absurdity, and paranoia.


  1. Comprehension: How did American capitalism fail certain segments of the population? Why were people attracted to socialism and communism?
  2. Comprehension: How did the fear of communism affect the United States in the 1950s? Was the government justified in the measures it took to root out communism?
  3. Context: Why would a poet like Muriel Rukeyser, who was born into a wealthy family, support American communist and leftist organizations?
  4. Context: In Chapter 26 of The Grapes of Wrath, Casey is called a “red son-of-a-bitch” just before he is killed. “Red” was a slang word for “communist.” Does Casey seem to be a communist or socialist? What are his concerns? Why did Steinbeck portray Casey in this way?
  5. Exploration: In the first decade of the twenty-first century, some people have compared the actions the U.S. government took in investigating possible communist “infiltrators and collaborators” in the 1950s to the post-9/11 suspension of civil rights for many people living in the United States. Are those comparisons fair? Do they help you understand why the government acted the way it did in the 1950s?

[4775] Mabel Dwight, In the Crowd (1931),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-6582].
Socialists and communists encouraged people to work together to rebel against capitalism, which they held responsible for the oppression of the masses and exploitation of workers. Important works of American socialist literature include Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart.

[6240] Anonymous, Look Behind the Mask! Communism Is Death (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-80757].
Propaganda poster depicting Stalin and a skull. U.S. anti-communism peaked during the 1950s Red Scare. Many political, union, and popular culture figures were accused of being communists. Cold War politics often made labor organizers unpopular, as depicted in Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart.

[7892] Robert Minor, Back cover of The Masses, July 1916 (1916),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries. 
Radical magazine The Masses parody of desired qualities in army recruits. Leftist political movements, such as socialism and communism, continued during World War I, despite government censorship efforts.

[8609] Patriotic Tract Society, Red Stars in Hollywood (1949),
courtesy of the Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries. 
Contains part of a speech made after the opening-night performance of Thieves Paradise on April 12, 1948. The speech talks about the presence of communism in Hollywood and “the menace of these traitors to the safety of America.”

[8615] Anonymous, The Story of the Sacco-Vanzetti Case (1921),
courtesy of Special Collections, Michigan State University Libraries. 
Written after the initial trial of Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti were originally arrested in 1920 on the charge of being “suspicious reds” but later charged with the murder of two men. They were found guilty and executed in 1927, though over one hundred people testified to their innocence. This pamphlet was partially designed to raise money for a new trial for them.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA)

[7023] Nathan Sherman, Work With Care (1937), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1172].

During his acceptance speech at the 1932 Democratic National Convention, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “I pledge you — I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.” One of the major components of the “new deal” was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA provided over nine million 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. Created in 1935, the WPA was led by Roosevelt appointee Harry Hopkins. Whereas the previous president, Herbert Hoover, and his administration had refused to offer government assistance to individuals, Roosevelt’s plan was to provide multiple forms of relief to the army of unemployed people created by the Great Depression.

The Civil Works Administration (CWA), the predecessor of the WPA, was created in the fall of 1933. In exchange for a weekly government check of fifteen dollars, previously unemployed workers repaired schools, built or beautified parks, constructed swimming pools and athletic fields, and taught people how to read. Writers and artists were also employed and paid for their services. About four million people found work under this program.

After the CWA expired, the WPA was formed and became the largest and farthest-reaching work-relief program of all those founded during the Roosevelt years. WPA workers participated in public service projects and programs, but the WPA is best remembered for its many artistic and literary projects. One division of the WPA, known as Federal Project Number One, included a Music Project, a Theater Project, an Arts Project, and a Writer’s Project. The Federal Theater Project put on plays across the country, along with vaudeville shows, puppet circuses, and dance festivals. The Federal Music Project offered free concerts and music education across the country and created an Index of American Composers, cataloguing thousands of pieces of American music and gathering the biographies of U.S. composers. Artists such as Ben Shahn painted large murals inside and outside public buildings as part of the Arts Project. This project also included art education classes and seminars. As part of the Writer’s Project, well-known authors like Richard Wright and John Steinbeck were paid to create regional histories of the areas they lived in. Other famous writers who were part of this project include Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston, all of whom documented life histories and regional folklore. The Writer’s Project also helped record many of the narratives of living African Americans who had been born into slavery.


  1. Comprehension: Who do you think benefited the most from WPA projects? Who did not benefit?
  2. Comprehension: How were the arts influenced by these government programs? What was created or saved that might have been lost had it not been for the WPA?
  3. Context: In Chapter 34 of America Is in the Heart, Bulosan seems to both poke fun at and praise the WPA and some of its projects. How does he do so? What does this brief chapter tell us about Bulosan’s general impression of the WPA?
  4. Context: How do you think Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, “The government is best that governs least,” would have reacted to the government programs of the 1930s? How do you think the American public would react to such initiatives today?
  5. Exploration: Research President Johnson’s efforts to enlarge government in the 1960s, especially the expansion of programs like Medicare, Medicaid, VISTA, and Head Start. In the 1980s and 1990s, these programs came under great scrutiny and were attacked as wasteful and counterproductive. Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?

[4672] Conrad A. Albrizio, The New Deal (1934),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). 
Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLR). A fresco of New York’s Leonardo Da Vinci Art School showing working people. The mural was dedicated to President Roosevelt and commissioned by the WPA. Work was an important theme in depression-era art.

[4808] Alan Lomax, Rev. Haynes’s Methodist Church, Eatonville, Florida (1935),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-1707].
Zora Neale Hurston worked with Alan Lomax on a WPA project collecting recordings and images of southern black life. African American religious beliefs, practices, and music were of particular interest to both of them. This is a church in Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, which she wrote about in both her fiction and her ethnographic work.

[5865] Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration (FSA) Rural Rehabilitation Client. Tulare County, California (1938),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USF34-018636-C].
In the 1930s, the Rural Rehabilitation Program was established to provide loans and other assistance to small-scale farmers who were hard hit by the depression. The Farm Security Administration also hired teams of photographers to document both the necessity for and the benefits of the program.

[7023] Nathan Sherman, Work With Care (1937),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1172].
This woodprint was created as part of the WPA Federal Art Project. The Works Progress Administration provided mil-lions 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. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan was to pro-vide multiple forms of relief to the army of unemployed people created by the Great Depression.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


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