What’s an Okie

If you read Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck or watched the movie, you know the answer to that question.

Photography by Skeeze/Pixabay

While working toward my teaching credentials, I had to take a couple of cultural studies classes. I chose courses on the black child and the Hispanic child. At one class meeting, the professor teaching the Hispanic-child class told us to go home and think about some derogatory words used to describe our racial or ethnic group and be prepared to share them the following week.

The next week he went around the room asking each student to reveal their words. When he got to me, I replied, Okie. Although I am a native Californian, my father came from Oklahoma. A hand shot up from across the room.

“What’s an Okie?” the student asked.

About ten years later, my son enrolled in a similar class and had the same assignment. When asked what word or words he had to share, he replied, Okie. Like ten years earlier, a hand shot up across the room.

“What’s an Okie?” the student asked.

A Short History Lesson

The Dust Bowl occurred during the 1930s alongside the Great Depression as the result of a severe drought, high winds, and unsophisticated farming methods. It was the perfect recipe for disaster. The worst years occurred in 1934 and 1936 when swirling winds scooped up topsoil and hurled it into the sky, creating black clouds coined “black blizzard” and “black roller.” Visibility of the land ended just a few feet in the distance.

Millions of farmland acres were affected, mostly in Oklahoma and Texas, forcing hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. As seen in “Grapes of Wrath,” most of these people came from Oklahoma, but migrants also came from Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. They migrated to California and Oregon, with the largest concentration going to California. Due to the depression, many of these people worked as migrant workers in the San Joaquin Valley. Many of them had been migrant workers in their home state.

Okies, Go Home

Up until the 1930s, farmworkers in California were Mexicans and Filipinos. Farmers and tenant farmers loaded their families and few possessions into dilapidated cars and trucks and started across the two-lane Route 66.

From 1935 to 1940, California received more than 250,000 workers. Although the farmers had advertised across the country for more migrant workers, the citizens weren’t too happy with the deluge of immigrants pouring into their state. Since most of these workers came from Oklahoma, people started calling them Okies, a term they meant to be derogatory. Signs of Okie Go Home greeted them at the border. Once they reached Barstow, California, they had the choice of traveling north to the fertile San Joaquin Valley or traveling south to Los Angeles. My father, a teenager at the time, his two brothers, and my grandparents ended up in the San Joaquin Valley. Thirty-eight percent of the immigrants chose Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Police formed a bum blockade at their border to keep out undesirables whose greatest crime was poverty. Those who couldn’t find work had a one year waiting period before they could receive public assistance. The California Citizens Association extended the waiting period to three years.

Many of these Okies lived in filth and squalor in tents and shanty towns along the irrigation ditches. Although they had no money in their pockets, they did contribute politically to California with their concern for the underdog, spirit of individualism, and a sense of patriotism. They also brought country music and evangelical Protestantism to the region. Their greatest contribution to California was their Protestant work ethic.

Sympathy for downtrodden people eventually spread across the country after John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath hit the book stores and movie theaters along with photographs that appeared in magazines around the world. The fact that these were white people with families helped to garner this sympathy.

Proud to be an Okie

In 1990, Mary Lynn Chess, a proud Okie, opened Okie Girl’s barbecue restaurant and brewery alongside Interstate 5 about 70 miles north of Los Angeles in an area known as the Tejon pass. At the time, my brother lived in the area, and I lived in a suburb of L.A., a 45-minute drive away. One day, while I visited him, he said, “Let’s go to lunch. I’ll show you a new restaurant.” That’s how I first discovered Okie Girls.

Due to our father’s heritage, my brother and I got a big kick out of the depression era and the Okie theme. Beverages were served in Mason jars, and the mashed potatoes had lumps. We took our Kentucky born mother to lunch at Okie Girl’s when she visited. She turned her nose up at the Mason jars. Although Mom didn’t appreciate the theme, I’m sure our father would have gotten a kick out of the place just as we did.

Caltrans, the California transportation department, didn’t find it funny, either. They refused to allow Mary Lynn to advertise on state-controlled signs alongside I-5, saying that it insulted native Oklahomans living in the nearby San Joaquin Valley. That insulted Mary Lynn.

“If anybody has a right to call themselves an Okie, I do,” protested Mary. “I’m proud of it, and I always have been.” She enlisted the help of Oklahoma governor, Henry Bellman.

Governor Bellman wrote to Caltrans, stating, “Oklahomans wear the name Okie as a badge of honor, symbolizing their strong work ethic, character, and resiliency.”

Caltrans agreed to allow Mary Lynn Chess to advertise along the freeway. However, Mary sued for lost income, and the court awarded her $32,000 in punitive damages. Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. On January 17, 1994, at 4:31 a.m., the Northridge earthquake struck, sending freeway overpasses plummeting to the ground in clouds of smoke. The disaster closed freeway access to Okie Girl’s Restaurant for some time to come. Mary Lynn didn’t have enough cash reserves to sustain her business until Cal Trans repaired the freeways, and life returned to normal. She had to close her doors.

California, the Golden State

Oklahoma Governor Hellman was right when he said, Oklahomans wear the name Okie as a badge of honor, “symbolizing their strong work ethic, character, and resiliency.” The Okies poured into California, willing to work at any job they could find. Nothing was too hard or demeaning for them to do. They weren’t looking for handouts. They were looking for work.

The sons of these migrant workers stopped working in the fields when their government called them to fight in WWII. This Greatest Generation returned to California after the war and built the state up to its post-war glory. They gave birth to the baby boomers, the largest generation of all time, who accepted the baton of their parents and grandparents after they got over their hippie phase. California became the most prosperous state in the nation, and California baby boomers became the most educated generation of all time.

When I entered a community college in L.A., in 1967, I didn’t have to pay a cent to get my first two years of college out of the way. After that, I entered a state university with tuition so low that most families and working students could afford it. If you couldn’t, there were resources available. California baby boomers enjoyed one of the highest standards of living the world has ever known. Most of them owe their prosperity to the Okie’s, who had a dream for their children and grandchildren.

Signs saying Okie Go Home, was lost on those thousands of Oklahomans. They were there to work and wore the title Okie proudly.

A free spirit, visual artist, writer, animal lover, introvert and independent woman.

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