My mother-in-law is a tough wiry lady who went through the real depression of the 1930s, riveted bolts on airplanes during World War II and worked the assembly line at Pillsbury Mills for 25 years. Although Frances is pushing 90 years of age, she has a sharp mind and wit and walks with a quick step.
She was over for dinner the other day and we were talking about the poor state of the economy. Even city employees, we told her, were losing their jobs.
She moved the conversation over to the Great Depression years, when her father had no work and there was no money coming in.
They lived in Arvin, a small farming town just south of Bakersfield. The town was mostly populated by Mexican farm workers who depended on seasonal crops for their living.
They received plenty of free left over fruits and vegetables from the farmers, but not a lot of other staples.
During one difficult period, she went with her mother to get food at a government food bank in Bakersfield. At that time, the government set up food banks all over the country to feed the millions who were unemployed and hungry.
As the eldest in her family, Frances was often put in the role of the translator; after all she was already about 12 years of age and attending a local school.
After a brief interview at the government food bank, they were given boxes containing canned meats, bags of flour, lard and oleo. All of this was shared with other families of farm workers. They would not go to the government food bank out of pride, or, in some cases, fear of deportation because they had no papers.
(If any of you know what “oleo” is, please drop me a note, because I am moving on to another subject.)
She described the difficulties of life on the farm and how Latinos from Los Angeles would send their boys to work during periods of the year.
Eventually, her father got a year-round job tending the vineyards at De Georgio Farms. During the conversation, she dropped little fascinating bits of information that made us listen.
For example, they used bus transportation to get to Bakersfield from Arvin. Mexicans were made to sit at the back of the bus. Remember this was back in the 1930s.
At restaurants, Mexicans were placed in tables in the back of the room. Tables up front were reserved for “white people.” The only exception was when they went to eat at a Chinese restaurant where they got to sit up front.
She attended a small elementary school in Arvin and was one of the few Mexican Americans attending. Her mom made her bean burritos (or “tacos” as she calls them) filled with whatever was left over from the previous night’s dinner. Her mom would often make several burritos to share with classmates, particularly some motherless black children who did not get tasty gourmet meals for lunch.
Life in Arvin was tough, and like many rural children, Frances yearned for the big city. Eventually, she settled in L.A. and she and her late husband John raised her own family here.