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John Steinbeck's migrant workers

August 19, 2008 | 10:40 am

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In the Village Voice, Tony Ortega recalls his research into John Steinbeck's book "In Dubious Battle." The 1936 novel chronicles a strike by farmworkers in California's Central Valley. Prompted by a college professor, Ortega focused in on one aspect of the novel:

Why, [the professor] asked, had Steinbeck turned the mostly Mexican workers of the Great Cotton Strike of 1933 into a bunch of white Okies?

As Ortega dug up his answer, researching newspaper accounts of the strike and Steinbeck's own take on why he wrote what he wrote, one thing bothered him. He wanted to talk to someone who'd been on the strike — but as they were all migrant workers, and the strike was 60 years past, that was impossible.

Except that it wasn't. In talking to his grandfather, whom Ortega had known as a musician, Ortega discovered he'd been a teenage migrant worker, traveling up and down California, picking oranges and cotton. He'd not only been in the strike — he'd been right in the thick of things during its most violent incident, when armed farmers sneaked up on an overflowing meeting and fired into the crowd, killing two.

The grandfather's story, after the jump.

When Ortega gets his grandfather and great half-uncle to tell him stories of the strike, it's exactly the first-person narrative he'd been hoping for. But I found, reading the stories in his article, that they were simply personal anecdotes — interesting anecdotes, sure, but simple anecdotes. The men camped under eucalyptus trees. They played clarinet and violin for the strikers.

Even when they describe the day of the shooting — exactly as they remember it, vividly portrayed by Ortega — there still isn't an answer there. They didn't have anything to say about what the events might mean.

What I find so interesting is that even while Ortega found what he was looking for — in his own family — it still didn't hold a key. Why did Steinbeck turn the Mexican farmworkers into Okies? The eyewitness accounts aren't really part of that story. Ortega's answer, it turns out, was academic and about the craft of the book — it didn't depend on history at all.

— Carolyn Kellogg

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