They flocked to California fleeing poverty in their home country. The public denigrated them as dirty and conducive to crime – a threat to the good life.
Authorities harassed new arrivals outside the city limits, forcing thousands of families to crowd into enclaves and take low-paying jobs. And when even that couldn’t scare them away, law enforcement set up roadblocks on the California border.
It was the story of the Joads, the family at the center of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I read it as a senior at Anaheim High School, and it remains my favorite novel all these decades later. Its biblical allusions, sparse but beautiful prose, critique of indifferent capitalism, and praise of proactive government make it a masterpiece on many levels.
But what speaks to me more than anything in “The Grapes of Wrath” is to what extent the saga of the Joads mirrors so closely that of my family.
The resilience of Ma Joad, the idealism of Tom, the tragedy of Pa, the personal growth of Rose of Sharon – these were my Mexican-born parents, my aunts and uncles, my native-born cousins, my brothers and sisters. Since then, the book has colored my idea of California. Although it is a fiction, Steinbeck based it on the real exodus of Dust Bowl refugees, especially those in Oklahoma. California may be cruel to the desperate – but only in California could the persecuted turn their hard times into dreams they would never find at home.
I particularly connect with an insult the Joads and their real-life contemporaries had to endure: “Okies.”
Californians have turned the term – long used as shorthand for an Oklahoma native – into a slur. My family members and other immigrants south of the border received similar slurs, including “Mexican” and “countryside», or mountain dweller.
But both groups have taken the haters’ invective and turned it into markers of cultural pride. Country music legend Merle Haggard recorded “Muskogee Okieto fend off urbanites who thought his genre backwards, while fellow country icon Vince Gill titled his 2019 album “Okies.”
In an opinion piece for this articleGill explained how the album’s title connected him to other slandered people.
“I appreciated that the Okies weren’t so different from other scorned and stereotypical bands,” Gill wrote. “They were hard-working people who were willing to do whatever it took to survive one of our country’s toughest times.”
It is in this spirit of respect that I used “Okie” in August. 5 obituaries for Salvador Avila, co-founder of El Ranchito d’Avila Mexican restaurant chain. He opened his first spot in Huntington Park in the 1960s, when the town was “still an Okie center” instead of one of the most Latino cities in the United StatesI wrote.
I thought nothing of that line, because it was true. Southeast LA County is where many Dust Bowlers have settled and where they and their descendants have held political power for decades. Simply saying “white people” would have downplayed the story, because Okie’s experience in Los Angeles was distinct from other white Americans in the area as, say, Midwest or southerners
Almost as soon as I published my article, the reviews came.
Teri O’Rourke of Palm Desert, whose grandparents moved from Oklahoma in the 1930s, said my use of “Okie” brought back memories of “people in the 50s and 60s who thought Okies were stupid and lazy”.
Karen Hamstrom claimed “Okie” was “extremely offensive language” that was beneath me.
“While the Depression-era generation who endured these taunts may be largely gone, these words are still used with contempt and derision to imply dirt, stupidity and a shallow gene pool,” she wrote. “Given how quickly you take offense to words and actions that you find discriminatory to your culture, I expect better from you.”
Danny Esparza considered “Okie” a “bitter description” and said Huntington Park in its white heyday “was a beautiful [thriving] city with a financially prosperous downtown. People came from all over to shop there. To use your racist vehemence, it’s now Mexican trash.
Nothing like Latinos hating each other to brighten your day.
The backlash I received on “Okie” surprised me. I thought his sting was a story thing. The group has long assimilated into Southern California “white” society and transitioned into the middle class. The New York Times used “Okie” as a crossword answer (to the index “Resident of the 46th state”) last week.
On the other hand, the term has gradually disappeared from this newspaper. Blake Hennon, a Times copy desk official, told me that the dictionary used by our copy editors describes it as “often a derogatory term.”
Hennon said he “would advise against calling anyone an Okie. But it is not wrong to note that people were called so in the historical context.
Otto Santa Ana, professor emeritus of Chicana and Chicano studies at UCLA who specializes in the linguistics of ethnicity, said my dust was a classic case of language evolution.
“A generation might think about it the wrong way, like this ‘Chicano’ was a negative term for my mother, and it’s become a positive term for me,” Santa Ana said. “We create a speaking community among our peers, not between generations. So that generation that felt the insult will always feel it.
After talking to teacherI called Oklahoma natives: two of my millennial colleagues from the LA Times.
Associate Editor Jaclyn Cosgrove is from Arpelar, a town of just under 300 inhabitants. At a high school government convention in Las Vegas in the early 2000s, they recall, their delegation reworked J-Kwon’s song “Tipsy” so that the lyrics proclaimed “Everyone here wants to be. an Okie”.
“I remember some of the older people in my life mentioning it was a pejorative term, but it seems less so,” Cosgrove said. “To me, you’re talking about a people who didn’t want to give up and who kept trying and trying to pursue the American dream and find a safe place for their family to live. Maybe be an Okie to some people is insulting, I just don’t see how that’s a bad thing.
Subway reporter Hailey Branson-Potts is from Perry (population 4,500) and has just returned from her hometown with Okie Kid Blend coffee for her husband, who is from Enid and Times video reporter Mark Potts.
“When I was growing up, it was something I could be proud of,” Branson-Potts said.
It wasn’t until she and her husband joined The Times in 2011 and started reading about California history that they realized the negative connotations that “Okie” once carried here.
“It was shocking to me,” she said. “It’s hard to fathom, because ‘Okie’ is such a proud sign in Oklahoma.”
Branson-Potts does a lot of reporting in rural California. The white inhabitants of the north claim to be from “calabashwhile those in Kern County regularly use “Okie,” as evidenced by the “Okie Fry Pies” billboards I saw on the outskirts of Bakersfield this spring. She said my detractors must have been a long way from modern Oklahoma to be mad at seeing “Okie” in print.
“When you grow up poor or next to poor, you seek pride in the things you have, whether it’s history or your family or even what people call you,” she said. “I guess at this point the people offended by ‘Okie’ are people who didn’t have to worry about money.”
But the paradigm has recently shifted in dark red Oklahoma.
There, she says, “‘California’ is a four-letter word.”