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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

12. Migrant

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Using the Video

Video Activities
Activities connecting this video episode to the Guiding Questions for this Unit.

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.

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