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.