Migrant Caravans: Photos From The New Deal Era Document Desperate Times

Courtesy Tucson Desert Art Museum
“Children in a Democracy,” photo by Dorothea Lange, on Arizona Highway 87, south of Chandler, Maricopa County, Arizona,1940.

On a hot Arizona day in 1940, a little girl climbed out of a filthy trailer on the old 87 road south of Chandler, when Chandler was nothing but cotton fields.

The child’s dress was dirty, and her feet were bare. She looked weary and woeful, and no wonder. She was the child of desperate migrants from the Dust Bowl, living in an unregulated camp where her father was picking cotton for pennies.

Dorothea Lange, a now famous New Deal photographer, captured the image of the girl and an older sister still inside the trailer. Lange reported that the camp had “no sanitation, no water”—meaning no toilets and no water to drink or to wash clothes or bodies. Lange didn’t record the father’s pay for the laborious task of picking the prickly cotton, but other cotton pickers earned as little as 20 cents an hour.

Lange gave her photo of the girls an ironic title: “Children in a Democracy.”

The searing picture is in an exhibition at the Tucson Desert Art Museum, The Dirty Thirties, a bitter nickname that workers gave to the hellish decade that paired the Dust Bowl with the Depression. The extraordinary photos made by the federal Farm Security Administration photogs—especially Lange and Russell Lee—help tell the story.

Their pictures chronicle terrifying dust storms in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and other Southern Plains states and the flight of migrants from their homes and farms. Scholars disagree on how many people were uprooted by the Dust Bowl, but some estimate as many as 2.5 million.

The Dust Bowl disaster was partly human made. Early in the century, farmers and even scientists believed that “rain follows the plow,” that tilling the prairies’ arid grassland would literally bring on the rains. In the 1910s and 1920s, farmers “blew up millions of acres of native grasslands” in a rush to grow more wheat and corn—and summon the rain.

But a decade of record droughts followed, and without the protection of the long-gone prairie grasses, the black topsoil flew up into the sky like a hurricane—crushing houses, killing people with dust pneumonia, making agriculture impossible. Farmers lost their now-useless farms to the banks, and dust refugees went west by the thousands in broken-down jalopies, laden with kids and household goods, hoping to find a Promised Land in California. The photos show that sometimes, they walked, covering hundreds of miles with children in their arms.

California, needless to say, was not a Garden of Eden, as Woody Guthrie famously noted in a folk song: promised jobs disappeared and with an excess of workers, wages could drop to the vanishing point. The “Okies,” as they were nastily called, were universally despised. And though they were American citizens, the police routinely tried to block their entry into the Golden State.

Arizona also has a place in this history. The state then (and now) was known for its high-quality Pima cotton and growers sought cheap pickers. Many migrants stopped in Arizona to pick up some money by working the harvest before they moved on to California. The cotton camps were mostly around Casa Grande or in rural Maricopa County.

Some of the pictures show signs that lured workers into cotton camps by claiming that cabins were available; more often than not the cabins were out and out shanties. One Lange photo takes a long view of a cotton camp nestled in the Salt River Valley: it can only be described as a slum in the desert. If you look closely, you can see a disconsolate mother in the doorway of one of the rat holes. Even worse, sometimes family had to pay for these accommodations, which often festered with disease.

Children of elementary school age and older also worked out in the fields, as one photo of a Mexican family attests. The kids are outfitted in hats and overalls, squinting into the morning sun. Sometimes local Mexicans and Native families lost jobs when the white migrants arrived. Lange wrote in 1937 that “drought refugee families are now mingling with and supplanting Mexican field workers in the Southwest.” (California repatriated 500,000 to 2 million Mexicans, half of them U.S. citizens, with the goal of giving work to white Americans.)

Ironically, Pima Natives’ ancestors had once grown cotton and other crops of their own along the Gila River. But they lost their water when new white settlers pumped it out and by the time of the Dust Bowl, the Pimas had become low-wage workers.

There was a racial component in the New Deal photography project too. The photographers took plenty of images of Natives—there is a wonderful one here of a Yaqui man who made his own traditional dwelling in a cotton field and a pic of a Black couple early in the morning, preparing for their day.

But apparently the photos of minorities were not widely distributed. According to the museum’s text, the FSA’s mission in creating the photos was to win Americans’ compassion for the plight of the migrants. And given the nation’s racism, they might have calculated that pictures of suffering white farm families would be more likely to get support for FDR’s efforts to aid the migrants than pictures of Black and Brown workers.

In contrast to the commercial cotton operations, the government built model camps with decent housing. Tents went up, and showers, toilets, washing machines and clotheslines were installed. Photos show a cheerful mother pumping clean water for her toddlers, and another woman hanging up sparkling clean white sheets on the line.

Some of the government camps were group cooperatives run by the workers; they paid themselves by dividing the profits. There were even a cheerful day care centers that allowed mothers to work in the fields and double the family’s income.

Naturally, critics, including some of the migrants, cried socialism and communism.

Yet it’s hard to ignore the lessons of the lens. The cameras starkly show the difference between a brutal commercial system in which anything goes and a government system that aims to protect workers and children.

The stark differences can be seen in two pictures. A photo from one of the day care centers pictures a little boy fast asleep in a cot. He looks clean and heathy, and so do his surroundings. The boy makes a distressing contrast to the Lange photo of the besieged little girl in the rotting trailer, a child the nation abandoned and forgot.

The Dirty Thirties: New Deal Photography Frames the Migrants’ Stories

Through May 29

Tucson Desert Art Museum, 7000 E. Tanque Verde Road

Enter on Sabino Canyon Road on east side of building

Limited hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Wednesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday. Closed Sunday through Tuesday

$10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 students, $4 children, free to members and Blue Star Military

520-202-3888; tucsondart.org

Masks and social distancing required; hand sanitizer provided