Immigrants in their own country

February: 1936

Los Angeles Police Chief James E. Davis sends 125 policemen to patrol the borders of Arizona and Oregon to keep “undesirables” out. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union sues the city.

My parents left Arkansas sometime in 1936 to make their way to California. All they had was what they had loaded in their Model A car, along with two small children. Another child had died of diphtheria. Although never much of a risk taker, maybe it was easier then for my mother then as she was only 22 years old. Maybe she was tired of death and poverty. To pull up stakes, leave behind everything she had known for 22 years and head out, not knowing what they would encounter or what would be waiting for them half way across the nation  in California. They were immigrants in their own country.

My father could not read or write but he could do math and he was a very hard worker. My mother could read and write very well and would be the communicator for the family for the rest of her life. A life lived in California for the next 65 years. Yes, they made it to the golden state, but it was not easy. They were so poor and had to work by the sweat of their brow and the strength of their backs for a decade or so. Often moving to a better job, a better place, until finally accumulating enough money to buy land. Isn’t that the hope of any immigrant? To have a place of their own in their new land? I was born on that land they owned, never knowing the life of an immigrant, but oh, I heard the stories.

My mother tells the story of the day they left Arkansas with almost no money. An older woman from the community came, as they were ready to pull out, and gave her $20. That was a fortune in 1936. My mother, aghast, told her, “I can never repay you.” Her benefactor, waved away the thanks and protests with this, “I don’t expect you to repay it, I expect you do the same thing for someone else.”

And that’s what my mother did the rest of her life. Any stranger who showed up at our door could expect a meal and a few coins. Both of my parents looked for those they could help in the community as they too had been helped. It was usually the outsider. The Mexican farm laborer, the Negro farmer, the widow. All of them were in my parents’ radar. Never rich in money, but always rich in stuff to share.

Yesterday I cooked an immense amount of food, far more than we would be able to eat. I called a friend who has had a myriad of health problems but is on her feet again and asked if I could bring her a plate for dinner. “That would be nice. What can I do for you?” I told her the same thing the lady from Arkansas told my mother, “You can pass it on.”

There are immigrants every where and they need a helping hand. What will you do? You never know when you will be on the other side.

As John Steinbeck wrote in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath: “And then the dispossessed were drawn west- from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless – restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do – to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut – anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.” 

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9 responses to “Immigrants in their own country

  1. So well written! I recently re-read Grapes of Wrath and cried once again. All over the world today are people trying to find a place to raise a family, have food and shelter. I am at the end of my life, so I don’t need to do that, but my heart goes out to those who are struggling. I too try to help those less fortunate.

    • One never knows what disaster will hit and force one to leave their home. We are seeing it here in California and, of course, we saw it in New Orleans. I keep an up-to-date passport just for that reason so that no matter what happens, I have ID.

  2. I was touched by your story, and I feel that many of us have our own unique stories of finding our homes in America. Your parents’ universal message of “pay it forward” should resonate with us all. And yes, I’m going to read The Grapes of Wrath again.

  3. How history keeps repeating itself.

  4. My grandparents were immigrants from Korea. So, I am a third generation Korean-American.
    My husband’s parents immigrated from Canada.

  5. Most of us are descended from the dispossessed of one kind or another. Even my most long ago ancestors who in the 1600s settled what became New England arrived with very little, having fled religious persecution and left homes their families had loved for generations.

    Its so easy for ‘know-nothngs’ to look back and criticize what happened in the past, but at any given time most humans are doing the best they can, never trying to dispossess anyone of anything, but rather just trying to survive in a world that has always seemed hostile to the little guy.
    Your parents, like my Mom’s parents had a very tough time, and found hope in this wonderful land.
    BTW I am currently very concerned about my friend Debbi. They were evacuated this past week as the fire swept over their homestead. They took the cat, dogs, wolves and parrots but had to turn the horses loose. I doubt the horses survived the blaze. Waiting now to hear from Debbi. Blessings!

  6. This is beautifully written, Delaine. It’s just hard to know where and how to help first. We can only try our best to do all we can.

  7. No group of white people ever got kicked around the way the dust bowl migrants did. Most did very well after suffering hardships. Enough people were generous. My Aunt Rosie lived in Bakersfield. She took food out to people in the camps. She had known hard times herself.

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