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    But migrant families do not gather...

    Carey McWilliams

    From, Ill Fares the Land: Migrants and Migratory Labor in the United States (1941), p. 6-8.

    But migrant families do not gather about soup kitchens, nor do they travel in boxcars or form improvised armies for protest demonstrations. They have, in fact, an extraordinary faculty for making themselves inconspicuous; they are the least noticeable of people and the most difficult to locate. Nor is their inconspicuousness accidental. They are forced, by circumstance, to be inconspicuous. Many of them travel by night, not because they prefer to do so, but because they have old license plates on their cars and are anxious to avoid highway patrolmen. For the same reason, they frequently travel along minor highways and make many detours and pursue zigzag routes. Occasionally travelers will be amused at the sight of an overloaded jalopy puffing up a grade or stalled in a gas station. But, at the pace most people travel nowadays, they seldom notice the numberless migrant cars they pass on the road.

    When migrants stop overnight, it is usually in the cheaper auto and tourist camps or in some squatters' camp off the main highway. If they were deliberately avoiding detection, they could scarcely do a better job of concealing themselves. When they camp along the way, it is usually in a clump of trees or under a bridge or around the bend of a stream out of sight. Good-sized camps of this character may exist under bridges over which thousands of motorists pass every day utterly unaware of their presence. Each spring for nearly twenty years, some ten or fifteen thousand Mexicans have journeyed from Texas to Michigan to work in the sugar-beet fields. In getting to their destination, they pass through a number of states and innumerable cities and towns. Yet so quietly, one is almost tempted to say so mysteriously, is this migration effected that few, if any, people along the line of march have ever noticed the presence of the Mexicans passing north or returning south. Nor are these Mexicans generally observed in Michigan, for they work in the fields, not in the towns; in small family groups, not in one mass.

    Migrants do not arrive in a community to the sound of blaring trumpets or noisy fanfares. It is not that they sneak in or that they hide once there. It is rather that they drift into the community, not as a procession, but in single families, car by car, at different hours and by different routes. They do not migrate, like geese, in well-organized squadrons. Today, a community may not have a single migrant family in its environs; tomorrow, several hundred migrant families may have arrived. They do not congregate in the center of town; they linger about the outskirts. They make their purchases, such as they are, not in the downtown shopping districts, but in the cheaper roadside stores. Many communities throughout the country, at the height of the season, are often wholly unaware of the presence in their midst of several thousand migrants.

    It is also difficult to see these shadowy figures at work in a field. It is hard to distinguish them, sometimes, from the land. They never work twice in the same place; no matter how many times you may return to the same field, they are not likely to be there. Workers in a garment factory can be located; they can be interviewed and their earnings can be tabulated and analyzed. But the agricultural migrant generally has neither home nor address. In the vast majority of cases, his employer does not even know his name. He works not for a single employer in one area, but for many employers who are frequently scattered over several counties or, for that matter, several states. In California there are 5474 private labor camps in agriculture, yet you can drive the main highways of the state, from one end to the other, and never see a labor camp. The owners who built these camps did not want them located near highways. Even during the peak of the season, the traveler scarcely gets a passing impression of the fact that 150,000 migrants are at work in the San Joaquin Valley alone. You do not see them in the fields, on the highways, or in the towns. You do not feel that impact of thousands of workers which you do, for example, in visiting a large factory. Even when you notice a crew at work in the fields, you can be completely misled as to the number involved. From the highway, it may look as though a dozen or so hands were stooping over at work in the fields. But get out of your car, go into the fields, and count them. And don't be surprised if you count several hundred.