Lives of Migrant Farm Workers in the 1930s

by Michelle Leach; Updated September 26, 2017
Jim Norris and his wife in New Mexico just before they headed west to California

If you were a farmer in the Midwest and Southwest during the 1930s, you had seemingly everything against you--from the Great Depression to dust storms and drought, according to Robin A. Fanslow with the Library of Congress. This trifecta of poor circumstances pushed many farmers to seek work elsewhere, in the more temperate California climate, prompting a mass exodus West.

Basics

The old Californian Inspection Station as mentioned in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath

If you migrated to California during this decade, you were among some 1.3 million workers who made the trek, according to the University of California-Davis' "Rural Migration News" from 2003. Not only did the state's more hospitable temperatures draw farmers, but California also boasted a more diverse array of crops -- from cotton and peas to lemons and oranges, according to the LoC.

Work

Three California Farmers, 1935

Once you reached California, you continued to be transient, according to the LoC. This was the case because you basically "followed the harvest," traveling from place to place to harvest whatever crop was in season. Earlier in the decade, there was a mentality that workers would be provided with the barest means, such as poor food, and then simply "sent on their way," according to UC-Davis. With reform, that changed and migrant worker camps were established; essentially, these were a federally-sponsored network of camps that provided shelter as well as health care, work counseling and food.

Recreation

Local farming boys listening to music, 1935

Though these camps mandated that workers volunteer a specified amount of time, you didn't just work; you also had opportunities to play, according to the Library of Congress. It reports that there was a sense of culture that flourished in the camp. Music served as one of the biggest recreational activities; popular among workers were traditional Anglo-Celtic ballads, as well as early country works by the likes of Gene Autry. The LoC also reports that music was created during this period by artists like Mary Sullivan and Jack Bryant, who documented what it was like to be a migrant in song.

Mexican Workers

Mexican migrants working on a farm in California, 1940

If you were a worker traveling from Mexico during this time, or an American of Mexican ethnic origin, you made far less than your white counterparts on the same job, according to the Oakland Museum of California. That being said, you still earned more in the states than you did in Mexico during this time. Mexican-American migrants patched together shelter from anything they could find, be it burlap, canvas or branches. Though it's estimated that in the 1920s, 75 percent of migrant workers were of Mexican origin, as the country fell into the Great Depression, white workers took over their jobs, leaving many Mexican-Americans unemployed.

Downfall

Your work options expanded with the advent of World War II. For this reason, migrant work became far less necessary and, in turn, far less desirable. Many former migrant workers, according to the Library of Congress, went overseas to serve in the war. Still others supported the war effort stateside, taking on positions at coastal shipyards or at defense plants.

About the Author

Since 2000 reporting and writing has taken Michelle Leach to Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, D.C., Chicago, London and Sydney, Australia. Her stories have appeared in various media outlets including NBC's "The Today Show," Reuters, Chicagoland dailies and network affiliates across the United States. Leach has a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a bachelor's degree in journalism/politics from Lake Forest College.

Photo Credits

  • Russell Lee/Hulton Archive/Getty Images