The Harvest Gypsies


In 1936, John Steinbeck wrote a series of seven articles, “The Harvest Gypsies,” for a San Francisco newspaper. The series was later compiled into a short book that reported on the situation of unemployed migrants who were flooding into California, looking for jobs as agricultural workers. This excerpt from the second article in the series details the wretched living conditions that families were forced to endure, living in camps without proper sanitation. 


From Article II 

1This is a family of six; a man, his wife and four children. They live in a tent the color of the ground. Rot has set in on the canvas so that the flaps and the sides hang in tatters and are held together with bits of rusty baling wire. There is one bed in the family and that is a big ticklying on the ground inside the tent. 

2They have one quilt and a piece of canvas for bedding. The sleeping arrangement is clever. Mother and father lie down together and two children lie between them. Then, heading the other way; the other two children lie, the littler ones. If the mother and father sleep with their legs spread wide, there is room for the legs of the children. 

3There is more filth here. The tent is full of flies clinging to the apple box that is the dinner table, buzzing about the foul clothes of the children, particularly the baby; who has not been bathed nor cleaned for several days. 

4This family has been on the road longer than the builder of the paper house. There is no toilet here, but there is a clump of willows nearby where human feces lie exposed to the flies—the same flies that are in the tent. 

5Two weeks ago there was another child, a four year old boy. For a few weeks they had noticed that he was kind of lackadaisical, that his eyes had been feverish. 

6They had given him the best place in the bed, between father and mother. But one night he went into convulsions and died, and the next morning the coroner’s wagon took him away. It was one step down. 

7They know pretty well that it was a diet of fresh fruit, beans and little else that caused his death. He had no milk for months. With this death there came a change of mind in his family. The father and mother now feel that paralyzed dullness with which the mind protects itself against too much sorrow and too much pain. 

8And this father will not be able to make a maximum of four hundred dollars a year any more because he is no longer alert; he isn’t quick at piece-work, and he is not able to fight clear of the dullness that has settled on him. His spirit is losing caste rapidly. 

9The dullness shows in the faces of this family, and in addition there is a sullenness that makes them taciturn. Sometimes they still start the older children off to school, but the ragged little things will not go; they hide in ditches or wander off by themselves until it is time to go back to the tent, because they are scorned in the school. 

10The better-dressed children shout and jeer, the teachers are quite often impatient with these additions to their duties, and the parents of the “nice” children do not want to have disease carriers in the schools. 

11The father of this family once had a little grocery store and his family lived in back of it so that even the children could wait on the counter. When the drought set in there was no trade for the store any more. 

12This is the middle class of the squatters’ camp. In a few months this family will slip down to the lower class. 

13Dignity is all gone, and spirit has turned to sullen anger before it dies. 

14The next door neighbor family of man, wife and three children of from three to nine years of age, have built a house by driving willow branches into the ground and wattling weeds, tin, old paper and strips of carpet against them. 

15A few branches are placed over the top to keep out the noonday sun. It would not turn water at all. There is no bed. 

16Somewhere the family has found a big piece of old carpet. It is on the ground. To go to bed the members of the family lie on the ground and fold the carpet up over them. 

17The three year old child has a gunny sack tied about his middle for clothing. He has the swollen belly caused by malnutrition. 

18He sits on the ground in the sun in front of the house, and the little black fruit flies buzz in circles and land on his closed eyes and crawl up his nose until he weakly brushes them away. 

19They try to get at the mucous in the eye-corners. This child seems to have the reactions of a baby much younger. The first year he had a little milk, but he has had none since. 

20He will die in a very short time. The older children may survive. Four nights ago the mother had a baby in the tent, on the dirty carpet. It was born dead, which was just as well because she could not have fed it at the breast; her own diet will not produce milk. 

21After it was born and she had seen that it was dead, the mother rolled over and lay still for two days. She is up today, tottering around. The last baby, born less than a year ago, lived a week. This woman’s eyes have the glazed, far-away look of a sleep walker’s eyes. 

22She does not wash clothes any more. The drive that makes for cleanliness has been drained out of her and she hasn’t the energy. The husband was a share-cropper once, but he couldn’t make it go. Now he has lost even the desire to talk. 

23He will not look directly at you for that requires will, and will needs strength. He is a bad field worker for the same reason. It takes him a long time to make up his mind, so he is always late in moving and late in arriving in the fields. His top wage, when he can find work now; which isn’t often, is a dollar a day.