Local News

Monday, Oct 14 2013 06:51 PM

Retracing of Joads' journey ends in Kern

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    A black and white photo cutout of John Steinbeck stands at the Weedpatch Camp where a group of artists with the National Steinbeck Center wrapped up their journey from Oklahoma to California. In the background is artist Patricia Wakida.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Filmmaker P.J. Palmer, right, lines up a shot for cinematographer Tom Wood as they prepare an interview with migrant workers at the Weedpatch camp. The crew was part of a team from National Steinbeck Center that retraced the journey of John Steinbeck's Joad family along Route 66 in "The Grapes of Wrath."

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Filmmaker P.J. Palmer, right, and his crew interview migrant workers Maria Soledad-Ramirez and her husband, Francisco Ramirez, left, as part of the National Steinbeck Center's journey along Route 66.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Faye Holbert moved with her family from Keota, Okla., to the Arvin area when she was 10 years old.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

WEEDPATCH, Calif. -- Their westward journey to honor the 75th anniversary of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" began in Sallisaw, Okla., and ended here Monday, at a migrant labor camp in the farm fields of Kern County.

Three artists and a film crew from the Salinas-based National Steinbeck Center retraced the journey taken by the Joads, the fictional family at the center of Steinbeck's 1939 novel.

Along the 11-day journey through Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona and California, they talked with dozens of people as diverse as the countryside they traversed.

"It's been amazing," said filmmaker P.J. Palmer, one of the three traveling artists who made the trip.

Palmer said he was astounded by the diversity of the countryside, and the diversity of human experience they encountered. The interviews were designed to be similar in format. But the answers proved to be otherwise.

"Same questions," he said. "Different stories."

Even at Weedpatch Camp, also known as Sunset Labor Camp, the stories are as diverse as the people.

Faye Holbert, 75, was 10 when she left Keota, Okla. and settled in the Arvin area with her mother in 1948. Holbert was not part of the 1930s Dustbowl migration portrayed by Steinbeck, but her family came for the same reasons as the Joads, the universal desire for a better life.

"I don't remember that we brought anything with us," she recalled. "We came in a Plymouth with nine people in it."

They lived for the first two years in housing supplied by Busby Ranch, located at the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains. Their first house consisted of a wooden floor and tent-like canvas walls and ceiling.

While Sunset Camp was government-subsidized, "a lot of the farmers had their own camps," she recalled.

Later Holbert would work 22 years at Sunset School, built adjacent to Sunset Labor Camp to educate the children of farm workers.

There are plenty of parallels, Holbert said, between the experience of the "Okies" in the '30s and '40s and the migrant farm workers of today.

"Some people didn't want them settling here," she said of the "Okies." Today's migrants sometimes face the same resistance.

But Holbert said there are also important differences between the two eras.

"Back then they didn't have as much government help as they do now," she said.

One of the other artists, playwright Octavio Solis, interviewed a Spanish-speaking husband and wife who live at the labor camp that still exists at the site. Only a few buildings remain of the old camp.

Francisco Ramirez and his wife, Maria Soledad Ramirez, came from Mexico in search of work and a better life, Solis said of the couple.

"They're very happy to be here," he said after the interview. "Work is life to them. They really do think things are much better here."

One of the traveling artists was surprised to learn about Kern County's checkered history with Steinbeck's classic.

The novel, which chronicles the Joads' migration to California, including the time they spent in a labor camp much like the Weedpatch Camp of the 1930s, was not only banned by public libraries, it was burned by some area residents who complained the book unfairly portrayed life in the camps and exaggerated the plight of the millions who journeyed to California in the 1930s.

"I am really, truely shocked," visual artist Patricia Wakida said upon learning of the book burnings.

Her own family was in the Central Valley in the 1930s, she said. And as Americans of Japanese descent, they faced their own roadblocks to acceptance into the American family, including internment camps during World War II and laws blocking citizenship of Japanese-Americans.

Local artist Jorge Guillen, who was interviewed Monday by the Steinbeck Center staff, said he doesn't think much has changed since the 1930s.

"The surnames have changed," he said. "Instead of the Joads, they're named Florez, Gutierrez or Garcia."

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