Rose of Sharon and Teresa Vega


First Editions of The Grapes of Wrath

by cheri block

The Economist’s Andreas Kluth is a master storyteller and in the Christmas issue on newsstands this week, he tells the troubling but inspiring story of the Vega family. It is tough to read, especially for those of us who have so much, especially this time of year.

In its details pieced together with other migrant worker’s stories—from working while ill to watching a child die from lack of medical care—Field of Tears is sadly the story of the migrant worker today and of yesteryear.

Those of us who live in California’s breadbasket, who regularly drive Highway 101 through Steinbeck country as I do, and who watch the large-scale farming, know this story to be true.

And some of us who have stopped in Buttonwillow, California, will remember that it was there that John Steinbeck’s Joad family tried to work in the Promised Land, picking peaches for 5 cents a crate.

In his article, Kluth draws the parallel of the Vegas to the Joads, two families who care more for their children than for themselves. Kluth ends his story with a Steinbeck quotation that reinforces the tender yet stern beliefs of Ma Joad and Teresa Vega: they will do anything  for their children’s futures.

At the end of  The Grapes of Wrath, Rose of Sharon (whose pregnancy we follow throughout the story), delivers a stillborn child, the final symbol of all the pain the family has endured since leaving Sallisaw, Oklahoma. Her breasts full of milk but her arms empty of baby, she nurses a destitute old man, starving.

How might this ending relate to the Vega’s story?

The easy interpretation of Steinbeck’s ending is to see hope in Rose of Sharon’ s grace despite her own loss. And this interpretation does work.

The Vegas will more than likely die young, before their time from lack of preventative medical care and cancer from pesticides.

The Vegas, though not stillborn, will never see the Promised Land, even though they are here.

But their children will. Their children, like the old man, will taste the Land of Milk and Honey.

They are United States’ citizens, with all the rights given therein.

Like Rose of Sharon, the Vegas can only smile mysteriously and I am sure that at times, they do.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in Education, Life, Parenting and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to Rose of Sharon and Teresa Vega

  1. jenny says:

    And yet I still feel wrath.

  2. sledpress says:

    The Take Our Jobs campaign caught my attention several months ago. So did this campaign
    which involved the astronomical wage increase of 1.5 cents per pound of tomatoes picked — over which major grocery and fast food chains had to be intensely lobbied.

    People sometimes snark at me for asking where my food comes from and how it was grown, as if this is an elitist or pretentious affectation. It matters.

    I’m struck, though, by the irony of Andreas’ story, in which he describes the children as “the joys” of these people’s lives — the “joys” that burn through fifty dollars of the woman’s bitterly earned sixty-five dollar daily wage, the “joys” that precipitated this frightful pilgrimage in the first place. I don’t understand the universal, knee-jerk approval for having children even when it drags people’s lives down into a long trudge of misery, as if no one is ever willing to step outside the picture and say “Hey — this was not necessary.” People don’t need to have children, and any attempt to alleviate these people’s wretchedness, it seems to me, has to involve a paradigm change on that issue, the sort of thing done by groups like the Population Council in just about every poor part of the world but here — I typed “migrant workers” into their search engine and got back results involving India and Africa. (Of course, the same conservatives who enjoy bashing illegal immigrant laborers and their “anchor babies” would probably explode if anyone suggested that someone offer them family planning clinics. Just imagine it)

    • Philippe says:

      …….I don’t understand the universal, knee-jerk approval for having children even when it drags people’s lives down into a long trudge of misery……..

      From the viewpoint of a denizen in an affluent First World society, your observation does have merit. But in Third World societies, of the sort which the likes of the Vegas would have come from, and still in fact are members of in the US because they are “illegals”, having children is an insurance for one’s old age. It is the adult children who support wholly their aged parents, because in poor societies there is no welfare state.

      You will doubtless know that the more women are educated, the less children they have, for education gives them the confidence and self awareness to make their own decisions on birth control. The opposite is the case the less women are educated. Hence if the women of families like the Vegas have little or no education, it would follow that they would bear many children.

      • sledpress says:

        Well, my point exactly. If we want to do something for people in this predicament — other than wring our hands — education is important, and conveying some inkling of a life involving something other than futile desperate reproduction is probably the most important. (One population group, I am not sure if it was the Population Council, used to sponsor soap-operas in developing countries with philoprogenitive cultures, in which the plots planted ideas of alternatives for women, other than just marrying and producing lots of children and dying in grinding poverty and ignorance). I can’t think anyone would write a story like that without some hope that its readers will support a change in the conditions that cause so much misery.

        But what bothers me is that even when someone writes as sympathetically and tenderly as Andreas, I sense a downright heartless approval of the idea of all this child-production — heartless because it is only a recipe for more suffering and degradation. The tragedy isn’t so much that a child died without medical care. The tragedy is that it was born despite conditions where that was a likely result, and that the same parents went on to have more. “Joy” is a cruel word to use in describing a predicament like that.

  3. Cheri says:

    For the Mexican people working both legally and illegally in California, having children is part of their culture and religion, as you know, Sled.

    Your thoughtful observations about why people who cannot afford children, still have them, is the stuff of cultures where control and economics prevail, places like mainland China and parts of Europe.

    And yes, your final sentence is true. Think of the flack George Bush took from his own party when he tried to introduce his guest laborer laws. The democrats too, never gave him credit for trying to be a part of the solution to this multi-pronged problem.

    At the risk of someone, somewhere, calling me a generalist, I will go out on a limb and say that Mexican people, in general, have large families and love their children. That has been my experience here in California as a teacher and friend to a number of Mexican families.

  4. Don says:

    Children bring an inexplicable life-changing joy and evidently unimaginable too.

    It’s not rational but neither is a society that pretends to humanitarianism yet enables the poorest of the poor living so far from home doing work we, as a society, do not deserve the fruits from. I’d much rather see food prices reflect a localized labor market. For one thing, there wouldn’t be so many irrationally loved brats running around.

    I wonder how little Erminio will turn out. Not well, I fear.

  5. dafna says:

    i’ve gone back to the article, math wiz that i am… and i count three separate “familia de los vega”, with two children each (excluding erminio).

    over population is a legitimate world wide concern… (now i need richard or mr. c to check my math) if one man and one woman produce two children, they are NOT increasing the population nor by default straining existing resources; simply replacing their own existence, correct? taking into account, disease, war, famine and other types of population control, one might even predict a decline in population.

    making any social and economic connections to reproductive “rights” past two parents; two children is a slippery moral slope – just look up malthus and his critics.

  6. Well, first of all, thank you, Cheri!

    As you know, it’s any writer’s greatest joy to have people discuss his writing. You have given me joy.

    I mapped Buttonwillow (which I had missed when I was there). Among the many, many things I couldn’t cram into the article was that I was picking grapes on the plot right next to the Weedpatch (spelling?) camp in Grapes of Wrath. (That’s the camp where the Joads found refuge, briefly. It was a real-life Depression-era government camp.) Alas, I only discovered this coincidence after I left, or I would have walked around there and sniffed…. (Except I wouldn’t have been able to do much walking after the grape picking.)

    Now, the conversation above took my by surprise. Fist bump to dafna (who seems to enjoy fist bumps ;)) for her incisive math. Yes, 2 children per couple is actually slightly below the “replacement rate”.

    But, folks, are we serious? Yes, at a collective level we must worry about overpopulation, which is the proper remit of public policy. As it happens, we know how to make women have fewer babies: lift them out of poverty and educate them. Then, families will VOLUNTARILY have fewer babies. This has worked everywhere.

    But — and this is the point I want to make — at an individual level, you can’t seriously tell somebody — anybody — that he or she may not, or should not, reproduce. It is biology. Bacteria exist with only one purpose: to reproduce. So do fungi. And chimps. And humans. It’s bred into us to WANT to do this (whether we are always able is another matter). So having babies is, IMHO, actually THE most fundamental right, right up there with “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. For many, it IS the pursuit of happiness.

    Now, I’ll put the other thread, about Rose of Sharon, into a separate comment….

    • Cheri says:

      Very Steinbeckian comment Andreas. For a minute, I thought you were channeling him…

    • Philippe says:

      …….It’s bred into us to WANT to do this (whether we are always able is another matter)……..

      Are you sure you’re not confusing “bred” with “propagandised”?

      I think that most men, while they crave sex, don’t crave becoming fathers. Hence that irritating joke about Mother’s Day being nine months after Father’s Day has much truth in it.

      As for women, I’ve known many who admit to having no maternal feelings at all, and not a few admit to not even liking children.

      I’ve seen studies which say that of the current generation growing up in North America, fewer than half will ever become parents. Perhaps this is because they are not as propagandised into the virtues of family life as were their parents and grandparents.

      • Don says:

        I rather think many moderns are propagandized against it. This is because many people who prefer to go childless are looking at consequences. Those who go ahead and reproduce are just doing it.

    • Don says:

      Completely agree that reproduction is a fundamental right.

      • sledpress says:

        How do you get to that? Think for a minute — the world’s resource are strained already and even people who “can feed their children” are taxing the existing capacity of the earth to renew its resources and of the surrounding society to cope with new births. At some point, you have to say that unlimited reproduction, especially by people who are *not* capable of providing for their children, is no longer a “right.”

        I don’t mean just poor people. I know people born into the upper middle class who are so feckless and incapable that any just society would have had them sterilized before allowing them to produce the children they have had and neglected.

        I can’t think that there is a serious propaganda pressure to refrain from having children. Everywhere I look I’m nearly suffocated by pro-procreation advertising; everything aimed at women still assumes their pinnacle experience is one of blissful Mommyhood. Look at a magazine or the ads on a women-oriented TV show or Internet site. I can’t walk through the commercial center of my end of the county without tripping over strollers.

        And it absolutely is about education, which is why I mentioned the population programs that use popular media to promote alternative ideas, especially in countries where early marriage and big families are the overwhelming social model. Of course, this outlook gets no support from the people who profit from an unending supply of cheap labor and other forms of human exploitation — I understand the pharmaceutical companies are now going to poor countries to test their dubious drugs on people too powerless to protest when someone dies in the studies.

        People who eat the groceries picked by virtual slave labor do have a moral obligation that starts with being aware of the predicament, which is why we need a steady flow of reporting like this. I think the obligation also does involve some level of education outreach , medical care and exposure to the idea, probably revolutionary to people like the Vegas, that there is something to hope for in life other than producing babies and struggling to feed them until you wear out.

      • Don says:

        Responding to Sledpress of 0744am — I think the commenting system limits the depth of a thread.

        Reproduction is a fundamental right in that no one can legitimately be prevented by someone else. There are a lot of excellent reasons not to churn out babies but ultimately it is the individual’s decision, not a theorist’s, or the community’s, or the state’s. China may be the only country to have passed such a law, and as a practical matter I admit I’m not sorry they did, but it was wrong anyhow.

        The valid point you raise is that producing children often burdens the rest of society, and so society ought to have a say in it. That’s sensible. But the slippery slope of well-meant societal controls on individual behavior have a long and ugly history. Easier for me to just recognize certain things as ultimately an individual’s decision, and the rest of us can only mitigate the consequences (e.g. requiring kids get their shots and an education).

      • sledpress says:

        Feckless childbearing also burdens children. There are so many fates worse than being prevented from bearing children we could sit around all night and not list them, and one of them is being born to parents who should never have the fate of a vulnerable individual under their control for the length of time it takes the state to intervene, if they ever do. That ranges far from a story like Andreas’, which is simply about poverty, but I think there is a sound argument for sentencing some people to vasectomies or Depo shots. I know a few. We all do.

  7. So back to the breastfeeding scene in Grapes of Wrath.

    You’ve taught this novel for years, Cheri. You’ve thought about it longer than all of us put together.

    What do you think Steinbeck actually wanted to do with this image? Shock us into insight (as a Zen master might). Is the “intended” meaning the one you gave above — that one life must be stillborn (sacrificed) for another to survive?

  8. Cheri says:

    You know, over the years (and there are many), I have read much literary criticism (813.52) about John Steinbeck’s work. I say this as a hedge against intellectual plagiarism, for I am positive that my own ideas are an amalgamation of so many others.

    Steinbeck’s work is essentially about the people, not about universal truths– although many of his fine novels ( In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, East of Eden, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat) do indeed play into the greater themes of class distinction, political movements, and biological outcomes. Since Steinbeck was a biology major at Stanford and great friends with Ed Ricketts, a biologist, we as readers must always take biology into consideration when evaluating a Steinbeck novel.

    As a teacher, I tried to guide my students deeply into the characters’ minds, emotions, and spiritual proclivities.

    So, the Grapes of Wrath is about individuals, first, and larger concepts, second.

    Your story touched me because it did exactly what I tried to do over the years: lead readers (students) into the hearts of people. The mind will follow. The spirit will weigh in after the previous two do.

    The breastfeeding scene is one of hope. Two individuals engage in a biologic need: to feed and to be fed.

    Without that biology, all dies: heart, mind, and spirit. We are left with an incredibly powerfully shocking image of ourselves. It all comes down to this.

    Zen, yes.

    When our hearts become calloused, when our minds become too rational, when our spirit is more concerned with the next life than it is with Tikun Olam (Hebrew for healing the world), we have lost our humanity.

    If memory serves, it was Muley Graves who said, “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of. Now I sat there thinkin it, all of a sudden, I knew it. I knew so deep down that it was true and I still know it. ”

    The ending is about Tikun Olam.

    So is the ending of The Winter of Our Discontent. Today is the first day of winter: I’d recommend my readers try that book, as well. It’s quite contemporary.

    Thanks for your tremendous story of the little people, illegal or legal.

    May we never forget the little people.

  9. Don says:

    Irrelevant side note: I’m only two degrees from Steinbeck one way and three degrees another, yet I’ve not read his work (beyond Travels With Charley, which doesn’t count the same).

  10. dafna says:

    fist bumps bring me joy! (feeling awe at my strange desire for validation)


    you have read a lot of commentary on GOW, does any of it hint that steinbeck was influenced by the story of pero and cimon or is this a wiki-link? i had not heard of the roman story until i looked up rose of sharon to confirm my assumption that her child was likely stillborn due to malnutrition.

  11. Cheri says:

    Hi dafna,
    I have not read the story of pero and cimon in any Grapes of Wrath commentary, but it is an intriguing connection. Good research, girl!
    btw, we all like a few fist bumps along the way. I’ll tell you who likes fist bumps more than any sentient being I know: my yellow Labrador, Dinah.

  12. Cheri says:

    Thanks for posting this!

  13. Cheri says:

    Who will pay for this education, Sled?
    Who will pay for strawberries to be $10.00 a crate?

    As a Californian, I am asking myself those types of questions often. My husband and I are more than willing to pay more for others’ health care, mental health needs, and tangibles that will truly improve California’s broken educational system.

    Who will pay for the mass education that it will take to reduce the world’s population?
    Will the Muslim world (which is producing babies like rabbits) or the Mormon world or the Catholic world listen?

    • sledpress says:

      All we can do is our best.

      When Cesar Chavez started UFW I’m sure there was pushback to the effect that allowing the farm workers to unionize would make food too expensive. Their label is now on such things as Gallo wine, which I suspect we can all agree is not a luxury product.

      I’ll bet that there were people ready to say that the South could no longer produce food or cotton affordably if slaveholding were abolished but somehow agriculture persists there.

      As long as labor is cheap and expendable, agribusiness won’t bother investing in methods that would offset the cost of decently paid labor, any more than they’ll invest in serious organic production if they can keep their profit margin by using pesticides that make farm work a guarantee of toxic exposure. In all these things there is a push and a push back and inevitably change comes, if people keep awareness alive. Steinbeck was doing that too. The jarring images he offered in his novels forced readers to imagine the lives of people they would not otherwise have thought about; perhaps not as didactic as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but they had their impact.

      As for education, it is already happening around the world. Big foundations seem prepared to sink money into bringing reproductive health education to migrant workers on other continents: I suspect it doesn’t happen here because of political pressure (first you have the people who don’t want a penny to go to “illegals,” then an overlapping constituency that thinks anything that might prevent childbearing is “godless.”)

      The Catholic world is already listening. Some day the Pope will catch up with them. The group I referenced earlier, the Population Institute (I searched a bit) collaborated on TV novelas in Catholic Latin countries, where liberation theology survives and is willing to entertain notions like this. I had the interesting experience of attending an annual meeting of the group about 15 years ago, where they discussed a soap-opera plot involving a “conscience clause” in Catholic doctrine, cited by a priest at the bedside of a woman who will die unless she gets an abortion and has other children already dependent on her. Your have living children, he says, and I cannot be the one to say you must leave them; you must consult with God and your heart, or words to that effect.

      People like the Vegas probably don’t watch novelas. But there will be a way to reach them. One person’s education is another’s propaganda, I suppose, but it amounts to illustrating options.

      • Cheri says:

        This comment could be a blog post in itself. You sound a little bit like Ma Joad here. (If only music were behind the words).

        Thank you for your thoughtfulness and depth. You do have a way with words. Have you ever been a professional writer in your life?

  14. Brighid says:

    I’m in many ways too close to my farming/ranching heritage to comment, other than to say that I believe Sled has the way of it.
    Thank you all for giving me a great deal to think about.
    Cheri, Merry Christmas from Gus & I

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Brighid,
      A Merry Christmas to you too.
      Give that little Gus a Scottish hug from me1 ( My grandmother was Scotch-Irish)

      Hope 2011 is a good year for you both.

  15. Man of Roma says:

    [I didn’t read ALL the comments here for lack of time (Christmas) so I might say something already said or totally off topic. ]

    It is known, research institutes are starting to measure the level of happiness in countries and not only the average income of the population and so forth. Don’t ask me how they do it, I don’t know. But it seems that relationships, social interaction, number of children in families that are actually clans do correlate with happiness. Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica rank higher in happiness surveys than the US, Italy or Germany. True? Not true? Hard to say. But I cannot forget, the days my wife and I were travelling quite a lot in Asian Third World undeveloped countries, the amazing number of people smiling so happily in the street.

  16. Cheri says:

    How so? Doesn’t seem unusual at all to me.

    So rushed (by schedule/commitment/work/family) that too lazy to look something up.

    Or how about sitting in a soft stuffed chair with a cup of coffee, resting after a long day of work, and too lazy to go back and reread something?

  17. ana terán says:

    “…But their children will. Their children, like the old man, will taste the Land of Milk and Honey…” Are you sure, Cheri?

    Left a message for you over at El hombre de Roma, but will say it again: have a wonderful 2011, full of more wise words, wise readings, wise comments, as yours always are.

    Un abrazo

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Ana,
      How was your trip to Spain? And your book?
      Please let us know.

      I believe that statement with all my heart.

      Education is the key.

      Thank you for your kind words.
      I am honored by your visit to my blog.

  18. Cheri says:

    Hi Sharon,
    Welcome to my little blog. What a coincidence!

    My husband’s foster sister is from the Philippines. She came here in 1971 or so from the Tondo District. Her mother was a seamstress and worked seven days a week. Her father had abandoned the family and all six girls worked to help support it. We have since learned much about the rich culture.

    It’s nice to have you here.

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