Failure Is Not an Option: A Migration Story
The Stephenson family in 1938, somewhere in Arizona, where they lived for a while picking cotton on their way west. (Family photo courtesy of Robin Stephenson).
By Robin Stephenson
My dad was a born a migrant. He likes to talk about the storm that was raging the night of his birth, but there was an even greater urgency than finding shelter from pounding rain that evening: hunger was pushing his family west. In an abandoned shack, having gone without food for several days, my grandmother gave birth. My dad was born on the migrant journey.
In the zeitgeist of the 1940s, migrants were considered lazy and shiftless. An exodus of the hungry fled one of the country’s greatest disasters—the Dust Bowl. Leaving all they knew behind, they were called “Oakies, ” often in hushed tones and with a contempt that implied their fate was their fault. Stirred by years of poor farm policy and practice, the dust storms left in their wake farms in Oklahoma and neighboring states that could no longer employ or support the population that once produced agricultural abundance. Having lost almost everything, families pulled together what little was left, piled into any transportation that could move them forward and headed west—not because they wanted to but because they had to.
The migrant’s story, whether set in Oklahoma in 1938 or Oaxaca in 2013, shares a common thread: lack of choice. The human drive to survive is unstoppable, even in the face of enormous odds. A journey fraught with danger and derision is no deterrent.
In a recent interview with Truthout, U.C. Berkeley physician and anthropologist Dr. Seth M. Holmes talks about the migrant journey he researched for Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farm Workers in the United States. For 18 months, Holmes traveled and lived with a group of families escaping poverty from Oaxaca, Mexico—another once-fertile land gone fallow because of bad policy. Asked how migrants see their options, Holmes says:
"[W]hen you actually do interviews and do research with immigrants who are crossing from Mexico into the U.S., they do not experience this as a choice. There were several times, and in the book I write about someone telling me 'there’s no other option for us.'"
This week, the House of Representatives have a choice that migrants don’t: they can choose to move an immigration bill forward. If crafted with an understanding of the root causes that drive migration, this bill could be an important step in ending hunger both here and abroad. A special conference with House Republicans is taking place tomorrow, Wednesday July 10, and likely will mark a critical turning point in comprehensive immigration reform.
Today, I think of the word “Oakie” as a badge of honor. I come from survivors. Being born in a storm is a great story, but being born into hunger is not.
It’s time for a new narrative and your voice can urge your Representative to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform. As the House takes up this issue, it needs to know that a faithful constituency is paying attention. Call your representative at 800-826-3688, or email him or her today.
Robin Stephenson is Bread for the World's national lead for social media and regional organizer, Western hub.
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