September 27, 2002

Libraries to focus on immigration stories

The Otay Mesa library is just a stone’s throw from the Mexican border. Ignacio Lucero, manager of the branch, envisions The Grapes of Wrath program as a chance to explore the immigration experiences of Mexican-Americans, who make up more than 75 percent of the area’s population. One of his events will be an evening of remembrance to enable community members to share and discuss the realities they encountered on arriving in California.

A Woody Guthrie fan, Lucero also plans to hold a musical evening, with a focus on the music of both Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, whose 1995 “Ghost Tom Joad” album shows the strong influence of both Steinbeck’s and Guthrie’s work.

In Winters, California, once a center of farm labor organizing, the library is also focusing on the theme of immigration. “One of our ideas,” reports Diane Cary, program chair of the Winters Friends of the Library, “is to build on a series of community dialogues we sponsored in 2000 called Coming to Winters.

At each of those programs, a humanities expert talked about the successive waves of Mexican, Japanese and Portuguese immigrants who came here beginning in the late 19th century, and community members described their own or their family’s immigration experience. These events generated heated discussions and made it clear that more needs to be done to tell the truth about Winters history.”

Cary said that the library will invite Kathryn Olmstead, a history professor at UC Davis, to speak about Dust Bowl migrants to the Winters area. She also hopes to organize a trip to the Steinbeck Center in Salinas and to offer a program in Spanish.

In Brea, once a booming oil town, Librarian Cheryl Nakaji sees the Grapes of Wrath program as an opportunity to tap into the town’s interest in its own history. “In the 19th century, people came to Brea to find work in the oil fields and later arrived seeking agriculture work. Much like the family in The Grapes of Wrath, most people who came were seeking a better life.”

According to Nakaji, many Brea residents have lived in the town for generations, and as part of The Grapes of Wrath, program, Nakaji plans to ask residents to submit their own “coming to Brea” stories for donation to the Brea Historical Association,” she said. “It will help us preserve our history.”

The Grapes of Wrath is particularly relevant to the area served by the Kings County Library in Hanford. The area has a large population of migrant farm workers and their families and an agricultural-based economy. Spanish is spoken in more than half the households. The areas also has a strong connection to Steinbeck.

Three years before Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he visited the migrant tent camps in Tulare and Kings County and wrote a series of articles about the Dust Bowl migration sweeping through rural California for the San Francisco News. Many of Steinbeck’s experiences during that time made their way into the letter and spirit of The Grapes of Wrath.

Kings County Librarian Steve Fjeldsted sees the Reading The Grapes of Wrath program as an opportunity to introduce Steinbeck, a hero to farm workers during the 1960s, to a new generation of Mexican-Americans. He also views the program as an opportunity to bring together two cultures who don’t ordinarily have a chance to discuss important issues.

With the availability of the new Spanish language edition of Grapes, Las Uvas de la Ira, Fjeldsted plans to hold bilingual reading and discussion programs, a first for the library. “People who buy California fruits and vegetables can hear stories from people who actually work in the fields,” he said.

Things are still tough for farm workers, according o Fjeldsted. “Arm prices are down and family farms aren’t making a profit. Many issues Steinbeck raises in the book are still relevant today and this program will give us a chance to explore them.”

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