Originally posted 10/15/2009
When recession headlines began nearly monopolizing news ink last year, I decided the time was right to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which had been collecting dust on my bookshelf since high school. The economic storm gripping the globe made the story of a family’s struggles during the Great Depression seem extremely timely.
The book was also relevant to an investigative story I was working on with another student. We were making trips to rural Whatcom County, Washington, to interview farmers and migrant workers about farm worker housing conditions. Our finished piece focused on one undocumented Mexican migrant family’s situation.
The first time we visited the family’s small cabin, we noticed a clothesline weighed down by drenched children’s shirts and socks. In the rainy Northwest, the clothes stood little chance of drying anytime soon. The father said they hadn’t known of Washington’s rainy reputation when they moved from Fresno, California, to find work. The father’s job provided all the financial support for the family of five. The mother stayed at home to care for the baby boy while the two girls attended school, learning English at a faster rate than their parents.
Inside their cramped living quarters, lit by a single overhead light bulb, the mother described the host of problems caused by their poverty, the language barrier, and their illegal status. The cabin was too cold. They couldn’t afford enough food. The girls struggled in school. The baby suffered from a persistent ear infection, and they didn’t know how to access community resources such as health care.
During our interviews, we battled objectivity. We weren’t sure how to walk the fine line between being human and being professional. When you have plenty of food, what do you say to a mother who can’t provide sufficient food for her children? Her baby’s ears were oozing from the infection, but she didn’t understand the pharmacy clerk’s recommendation for appropriate medication. What do you say to a mother who asks you to accompany her and the baby to the hospital to translate a doctor’s instructions? Since I knew about the family’s situation, was I morally obligated to help them or just report their story so someone else might? At what point does a favor become a conflict of interest?
News on the economy didn’t provide answers. Little ink was devoted to the financial hardships faced by foreign migrant workers. The few articles that did surface usually indirectly blamed immigrants for stealing scarce jobs away from hard-working “legal” citizens. However, statistics showed an increasing unemployment rate for undocumented workers, generating a mass exodus back to their countries of origin. In addition, undocumented family programs were usually the first cut from hospital budgets, leaving few options for health care for those who remained in the U.S.
When money is scarce, stress is abundant and fierce. Charity tends to give way to selfishness. Providing for oneself, for one’s family, becomes primary. However, when hard-earned savings slip away, and finding a job seems an absurd notion, it becomes paramount to remember what remains: family, friends and community. In The Grapes of Wrath, after the Joad family loses everything, the final scene is a testament to the strength of human goodness: even in the darkest hour of despair, a person’s kindness and generosity can be the light illuminating hope.
My friend and I decided to help the family in a small way. We tapped into resources not easily-accessible to them: English, a phone book, the Internet. During our last couple visits, we gave them information on their rights, the local food bank, and a health clinic specifically founded to serve undocumented families. I also made a personal commitment to continue to shed light on under-covered issues and groups by learning their stories and writing about them.
With no clear end in sight to this economic foul weather, it’s worth remembering we are all stumbling through it together. Whether someone is undocumented or legal, a journalist or a neighbor, we are all human. We should remember to help those who have dipped below the radar of recession coverage.
When money is an issue, recall the other small ways to show support. Instead of donating dollars, volunteer time to a food bank, a homeless shelter, or a non-profit organization. Give used clothes, appliances, and furniture to those who can’t afford their own. Write a letter to the editor about an issue that needs more public attention.
Provide the lantern to lead someone out of the storm.