Chicano Migrant Workers
Migrant workers are those who are employed on a temporary, often seasonal basis and who come from a community, state, or nation other than where they are temporarily employed. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the majority of migrant farm workers in the United States were recent immigrants from Asia or Europe, but with the growth of the sugar beet, fruit and vegetable, and cotton industries in the early twentieth century, the number of Mexican and Mexican American migrant workers rapidly increased. Each spring they would travel from Texas to the north central, mountain, and Pacific Coast states. At the end of the season, they would return to Mexico or towns on the Mexican border.
Rivera’s parents were part of this migration of Mexican Americans north. He recalled that one of his earliest memories was of waking up in a farm in northern Minnesota where his parents and relatives worked in the beet fields. This memory probably dates from the late 1930s, when there were an estimated four million agricultural migrant laborers working each season.
These workers were often exploited. Wages were low and working hours were long. Child labor was widespread. Education levels were also low, and often local schools would not admit the children of migrant workers since they were not permanent local residents. Because the local community considered the workers as aliens, they were excluded from community life and often found it difficult to attain health care and government services such as food stamps and disability insurance. Levels of diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid, and smallpox among migrant workers were far higher than that of the general population, as were maternal and infant mortality rates. Employment was also limited; most migrants worked less than a quarter of available working days. In addition to all these hardships, housing provided for migrant workers was grossly inadequate.
Rivera commented forcefully in his essay, “Remembering, Discovery and Volition in the Literary Imaginative Process,” on the plight of migrant workers: “The political and economical structures which surrounded the lives of these families [was] brutal, outrageous and inhuman.” Rivera believed that the migrant workers were possibly worse off than slaves. Slaves were considered an investment by their owners and therefore had some protection, but not so the migrant worker:
“The migrant worker never had any protection because he was really not an investment for the exploiter and thus worked under the conditions of slavery without the most rudimentary benefits.”
In the 1950s, when Rivera himself was a migrant worker, their numbers dropped to about 600,000 yearly. In the 1960s, the numbers fell once more, to about 400,000, and there were some improvements in living and working conditions. Much of this was due to the efforts of Mexican American activist Cesar Chavez, who organized what is now the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in California.
Rivera was one of the leading figures in what has been called the Chicano Renaissance, an explosion of literary activity among Mexican Americans during the 1960s. In part inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and the gains made by African Americans, Chicano writers emphasized the need for social and political action to end discrimination and provide equal opportunities for Chicanes. As Rivera writes in his essay, “On Chicano Literature,” in the decade from 1966 to 1976, Chicano literature had a three-part mission: “conservation of a culture; the struggle or fight for better economic, social, educational and political equity; and invention.”
Many of the most celebrated Chicano writers of this period were poets, who drew on the oral traditions of their culture to inspire their communities with a sense of identity and mission. Abelardo Delgado’s collection, Chicano: 25 Pieces of a Chicano Mind (1969), was one of the most influential books in this respect.
Another landmark in Chicano literature was the establishment in 1968 of the publishing house Quinto Sol in Berkeley, California, by a group of young Mexican Americans. Its purpose was to provide a channel for the publication of Chicano literature. Quinto Sol instituted a national award for Chicano literature, Premio Quinto Sol (Fifth Sun Award), which offered a cash prize and publication of the winning entry. In the first year, the prize was awarded to Rivera’s .. .y no se lo trago la tierra/ .. .And the Earth Did Not Part (1971), which is still one of the most highly regarded of all Chicano works. In the following year, the Premio Quinto Sol was awarded to Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), which has also become one of the best-known and most popular Chicano novels.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Tomas Rivera, Published by Gale, 2002.