“Migrant Mother”

dorothea lang_madre migrante_1936

A Mother’s reach is limitless.  She begins in her home with her family.  The ripple effect her service renders is limitless; however, meager at times by its immediate rewards.  In the photo taken by Dorothea Lange of the “Migrant Mother”, we learn two vital key factors of how its influence was received for decades, how the mother succeeded and how mothers around the world unite in our endless efforts of compassion.

Firstly, this is a photo taken in 1936 of a migrant worker and her three children in California.  The emotions of this family rips my heart in two.  The  photographer has captured the look of a distraught and hungered mother in her anguish of how to feed her starving and frightened children.

Secondly, Florence, the woman in the photo, asked Lange that it not be published. Although this photo famed the author, becoming a notorious depiction of America during the depression, Lange not only reneged on her promise to Florence, she never remunerated her.  The story goes as follows:

Florence later recalled periods when she picked 400–500 pounds of cotton from first daylight until after it was too dark to work. She said: “I worked in hospitals. I tended bar. I cooked. I worked in the fields. I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.”[3] 

In March 1936, after picking beets in the Imperial Valley, Thompson and her family were traveling on U.S. Highway 101 towards Watsonville “where they had hoped to find work in the lettuce fields of the Pajaro Valley.”[2] On the road, the car timing chain snapped and they coasted to a stop just inside a pea-pickers’ camp on Nipomo Mesa. They were shocked to find so many people camping there – as many as 2,500 to 3,500.[2] A notice had been sent out for pickers, but the crops had been destroyed by freezing rain, leaving them without work or pay. Years later Florence told an interviewer that when she cooked food for her children that day little children appeared from the pea pickers’ camp asking, “Can I have a bite?”[4]

While Jim Hill, her husband, and two of Thompson’s sons went into town to get the car’s damaged radiator repaired,[5] Thompson and some of the children set up a temporary camp. As Thompson waited, photographer Dorothea Lange, working for the Resettlement Administration, drove up and started taking photos of Florence and her family. She took 6 images in the course of 10 minutes.

Lange’s field notes of the images read:[2]

Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.

Lange later wrote of the encounter with Thompson:[6]

I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food.

Thompson claimed that Lange never asked her any questions and got many of the details incorrect. Troy Owens recounted:[2]

There’s no way we sold our tires, because we didn’t have any to sell. The only ones we had were on the Hudson and we drove off in them. I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying, I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.

According to Thompson, Lange promised the photos would never be published, but Lange sent them to the San Francisco News as well as to the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C. The News ran the pictures almost immediately and reported that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo, California.[7] Within days, the pea-picker camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government.[7] Thompson and her family had moved on by the time the food arrived[7] and were working near Watsonville, California.[2]

While Thompson’s identity was not known for over forty years after the photos were taken, the images became famous. The sixth image, especially, which later became known as Migrant Mother, “has achieved near mythical status, symbolizing, if not defining, an entire era in United States history.” Roy Stryker called Migrant Mother the “ultimate” photo of the Depression Era: “[Lange] never surpassed it. To me, it was the picture … . The others were marvelous, but that was special … . She is immortal.” As a whole, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration “have been widely heralded as the epitome of documentary photography.” Edward Steichen described them as “the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures.” Later, however, Lange was criticized for taking inaccurate notes.[2]

Thompson’s identity was discovered in the late 1970s. In 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Thompson at her mobile home in Space 24 of the Modesto Mobile Village and recognized her from the 40-year-old photograph.[8] A letter Thompson wrote was published in The Modesto Bee and the Associated Press distributed a story headlined “Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.” Florence was quoted as saying “I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”[2]

Lange was funded by the federal government when she took the picture, so the image was in the public domain and Lange never directly received any royalties. However, the picture did help make Lange a celebrity and earned her “respect from her colleagues”.[9]

In an interview with CNN, Thompson’s daughter, Katherine McIntosh, recalled how her mother was a “very strong lady”, and “the backbone of our family”. She said: “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That’s one thing she did do.”[10]  Wikipedia 

Dorothea Lange acts as a metaphor of the societal acceptance of “raping” woman of our identity as a woman and more particularly as mothers.   The cultural climate of women’s liberation is flamboyantly defaming and disgracing a woman’s true identity, at least it is for me.  Women’s rights, the great excuse America politicians are making to increase fairness, equal pay, transgender bathroom stalls at Target, etc. are, in my opinion, crippling women, families, nations and eventually America and the world’s financial and economical infrastructure.  The strength of these all stand upon the firm foundation of a mother and her ability to BE THERE for her traditional family, even if that means she is the breadwinner or single.

Florence, is the true winner in this story.  Although she was destitute for all her days and someone made a killing off her innocence, she worked along side her family, taught her children the value of hard labor and sacrificed her own wants above those of her children in order to care, nurture and love her family.

Today as we celebrate our mothers, I hope we remember the selfless sacrifices each makes to rear in the best way they could whether given opportunities or under stifling circumstances either by choice or by chance.   The irony is, like Florence, most mothers are never remunerated.  Their influence is so far reaching, they can change the course and the outlook of the world for decades to come.  As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the four-fold missions of the church is to succor the needy and help the homeless.  Mothers around the world of all faiths can unite in the cause of nurturing the sick and afflicted as well as the homeless and refugees.  Let’s begin in our own homes and stand up for the traditional family, motherhood and then reach out to those around us who are in dire need of our rescuing.  I Was A Stranger project  IWasAStranger@ldschurch.org

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