The humanity in a Joad and a Vega

Well, it’s time again for our (The Economist‘s) annual Christmas issue — a double issue (meaning that it is on news kiosks for two weeks instead of the usual one).

My piece in this one is called Migrant farm workers: Fields of Tears.

(The title of this post explains itself if you read the article.)

They even used one of the pictures I took with my dirty, sweaty, unsteady hand while picking grapes in August (I posted about it at the time). So, even though we don’t get bylines at The Economist, I did get a tiny picture credit in the bottom right! 🙂

The back story

In late October, I posted a cryptic and coy entry here, in which I talked about an exchange with one of my editors, after she told me that

The subject-matter is so emotionally strong that it will work better if the tone is flatter.

This was, in fact, the piece we were talking about and editing at the time. So now you can read it and judge for yourself if flattening the tone was the right decision.

Another point worth mentioning is that my first draft was, well, bad. The reason was one that you may find sympatico (during my research, we had a baby, so I had other things on my mind and took a shortcut, writing before I was ready). But a good editor owes it to the writer not to let those half-hearted pieces slip through.

So my editor called me on it. She has a beautifully frank manner, which sugarcoats nothing (and thus makes her praise, whenever it comes, uniquely credible).

Back I went, after my paternity leave, to finish the research (which was harder than it is for most of my pieces). And then I wrote what turned out to be the real piece.

During the frantic copy-editing in the final hours before the pages were printed, I thanked my editor for her intervention:

… you did me the honor of being frank, thus saving me from a bad piece and forcing me to turn it into a decent one. You’re the best editor I’ve ever had. It’s all about trust: the editor has to trust the potential of the writer (and demand that it be reached); and the writer has to trust the judgment and intention of the editor.

She replied with some touching personal comments, and then this summation, which tells you more about The Economist than you would ever understand simply by reading our magazine:

… I also think the genuinely nice atmosphere at the econ–in contrast to many other papers–is important here. People generally believe they’re working together, not against each other.

45 thoughts on “The humanity in a Joad and a Vega

  1. I wish, at each work place, we have such positive energy of team spirit flowing. It not only helps people stay focussed but helps them achieve their potential too, in turn benefitting the organization they serve. Thank you for sharing…

  2. Sounds like a good, positive working environment. FWIW, the Economist is one the few things I still like reading through in paper on occasion rather nibbling occasional chunks of online, so you must all be doing something right. 😉

  3. When I worked as a menial at an investment bank, I perceived the financiers truly and deeply felt they were entitled to giant remuneration because they worked so incredibly hard against their own colleagues (never mind the actual business of the bank). You are lucky to be at a place where that isn’t true and especially lucky to have had occasion for paternity leave. Congratulations!

    • I once contemplated writing a Catch-22-genre novel about an investment bank called P.J. Gorman where the employees do exactly that. (As they did in Catch 22, remember?)

  4. Editors are great. They make the rest of us look good, though not always feel good. You seem to have a delightful relationship with yours. Treasure it.

  5. Your Economist piece is wonderfully written, and is the more powerful and the more jarring, for its simple style.

    If it helps raise, even a smidgen, the general level of consciousness about the realities of life for the migrant workers, and of the concomitant ethical issues, the time and energy you put in to write this most moving piece could not have been better spent.

  6. I felt some betrayal after being encouraged to be optimistic and not Bulgarian just a few pages before. C’mon, the Economist is supposed to end a piece with something pithy. I was distracted by your shins. Did the editor question the shins? This calibrates the level of discomfort, but it is only structural in the face of a child who is sick for want of love. Strong work, correspondent.

    • You’re not the first to be distracted by my shins. Females with decent driving records have been known to wreak traffic mayhem as their SUVs pass sidewalks on which I happen to be prancing in shorts.

      Actually, though, that passage caused me pain. In the original draft it was much longer. And I used the first person (“I” and “We”), hoping I’d get away with it.

      A conservative editor took over the final shift and returned the article to our official style guide, which explains all the weird third-person stuff (“This corrrespondent”… “He…”)

      Very annoying.

      But yes, the shins seem so trifling next to the children. I suppose it was all about giving a range of detail so that readers triangulate in their own hearts to the essentials. You know: mixing the small with the large.

      As to the Bulgarian optimism, I have yet to read the other articles in the issue….

  7. Oh, it’s a picture credit. I thought it was the name of the guy driving the grape truck.
    Of course, the plight of these migrant workers is deplorable, and opinions differ on how to fix the situation, i.e., whether by (a) stricter or (b) laxer enforcement of existing immigration laws. And along liberal-conservative lines, opinions differ as to the extent to which the United States is the bad guy in this situation. Obviously, there are multiple layers to the immigration onion.
    In your Economist article, you write
    … agents tied them up, shouted at them, threw them into a van and then into a freezing jail … The worst moment came when la migra caught them again, beat Gonzalo and threatened to take his brothers away from him. … they slept on the streets, then in a doghouse, then in somebody’s car. …
    As always, I’m curious about the choice of words:
    shouted … threw … freezing … beat … threatened … doghouse
    Clearly, by way of your word choice, you portray the U.S. and its border enforcement crew as the villains here, and maybe they were; they may well have shouted, thrown, beaten, and threatened. Maybe the Vegas slept in a doghouse. I wasn’t there.
    Now, I’m not trained in journalism, but I’ve heard something about “two independent sources” being required before printing something as fact. I’m aware that there are different types of journalism (hard news, editorial, etc.), and they all have different standards and fact-checking requirements. I don’t know what category exactly your “Fields of tears” falls into. (BTW, why isn’t “tears” capitalized? I always thought all words in a headline except articles and prepositions are supposed to be capitalized. The Economist doesn’t seem to follow this convention.)
    So I’m wondering as to the source(s) that the Vegas were “thrown” into that van as opposed to ordered to get in and complying, that the jail was “freezing” as opposed to room temperature, and that Gonzalo was beaten simply because an emotionally imbalanced border agent felt like beating him (which is what any mention of a beating inevitably sounds like when no plausible reason for the beating is given), and that they really slept in a doghouse.
    My question is, are all these claims based on something other than the Vegases own testimony?
    Since you present most of the information in your article as objective fact—i.e., not flagged as a particular individual’s account of what happened—I’m assuming you’ve obtained independent confirmation regarding, for instance, the temperature in that jail cell before writing that it was “freezing” as opposed to having been described as freezing by the inmates. Perhaps you interviewed someone other than the Vegas themselves to confirm that the jail cell had indeed been freezing; a prison guard on duty at the time perhaps. I don’t know if you did. That’s why I’m asking. (In fairness, you did write, “When the family was allowed to remain together, even the cold jail floor felt good, he recalls,” the word “recalls” making it clear that the claim of the jail floor having been cold is a statement given by one individual, not objective fact, although the former, of course, does not preclude the latter.)
    Needless to say, how we feel about a particular issue determines how predisposed we are to either believe or question anything we hear or read about it, and now I’m coming across as the heartless cad who questions what the downtrodden have said. (I just had a fight with a devout conservative on a different issue and was referred to as one of “you liberals,” so I’m used to coming off as the ideological enemy no matter what debate it barge into. Story of my life.)

    • “… Of course, the plight of these migrant workers is deplorable, and opinions differ on how to fix the situation…”

      That’s the beauty of a piece like this: I (the narrator) don’t have to get into that. The piece merely tells the story of one family, with the goal of empathy. Beyond that, “opinions” are entirely up to readers….

      You’re mixing things up after that, though. The doghouse, for example: The Border Patrol had nothing to do with that. Felix and his group just slept in one, because they had to, but that was in Oxnard, far from the border.

      Now, you ask about facts and “two independent sources”. First, it is absolutely clear that this piece relies on the recollection of the family members. This is their story (which we, by implication, value, because this year we have heard a lot of other people’s stories, but not the side of the Vegas and their kind).

      You seem especially worried about the reputation of the BP. But it would have been impossible for me, for example, to visit the exact same cell where they were kept, at the same time of year and in the same weather, to verify that it was indeed freezing. So this is presented as just what it is: recollection.

      (By the same token, we don’t disallow the recollection of, say, Elie Wiesel or Viktor Frankl because they could not produce another independent source from the same camp.)

      This reminds me of a funny moment during a speech I once attended by Ken Burns, the documentary maker. He showed a clip of bears in a waterfall catching salmon. Beautiful. Afterward, he asked us: Hands up, who rooted for the salmon? And who rooted for the bear? We laughed.

      It’s a bit strange to read this and conclude that the BP is made to look bad. The Vegas themselves were commendably nuanced and balanced in their hours of interviews with me. They did NOT brush all Americans, or all BP, with one stroke. This made their accounts so plausible.

      I notice, by the way, that you are not worried about the reputation of the Mexican bandits who waylaid them, or the Latinos and Mexicans (as opposed to white Americans) who, as the Vegas say, often discriminate worst.

      Anyway, the piece is a Rohrschach test. I’m bracing myself for all sorts of reactions. It’s always interesting to observe who picks out which word or phrase out of the 3000….

    • Rorschach. Only two aitches. Déjà vu.

      Thanks for deleting my duplicate entry, but you deleted the wrong one, i.e., the one with the italics and the blank lines between the paragraphs.


      Speaking of dogs, I’m aware that the border patrol per se had nothing to do with the doghouse, but the United States as a country had, for the obvious implication is that it is this country which has created conditions where poor migrants have to sleep in doghouses. That’s why I wrote “you portray the U.S. and its border enforcement crew as the villains here”—the U.S. and its border enforcement, not the U.S. border enforcement.

      I agree I should have thrown in a main (the main villains) so as to duly acknowledge your—i.e., the Vegas’—mention of those Mexican bandits and Latinos who discriminate worse than whites.

      The story of the Vegas should absolutely be heard, but to me it wasn’t quite as clear as you claim that your piece reflects—and is intended to reflect—solely their own testimony. Of course, no one’s recollections should be “disallowed,” only labeled as such. Mr. Frankl’s search for meaning is clearly a personal account.

      Alas, we all have slightly different conceptions of clarity.

  8. I really like your piece. You said in the comments earlier you haven’t read the other articles yet, but, once you do, could you tell me your other favorite article?

    • OK, Luke, so I leisurely made my way through all of our Christmas Specials now.

      I have to give a lame answer: What I liked best was not one particular piece but the mix.

      This speaks again to the editor whose praises I was singing in the blog post above. She would have received pitches from all of us and selected those that, ensemble, make for a compelling package.

      So we have China (the Boxer rebellion), India (a village and its caste system), America (several times), Africa (Nollywood) and other places.

      And we have today (mine and several pieces), and distant past (the first Moghul emperor, medieval battles etc).

      We have serious and emotional and soulful (mine and several) and light and quirky and humorous (Barbecues et al).

      We have big ideas (life gets better after middle age, too much choice is bad for us) and apparently mundane but fascinating ideas (the PR industry).

      Personally, I found that the pieces on excessive choice, the PR industry, the Chinese Grand Tour of Europe and Battlefield archaeology were the easiest reads.

  9. Beautifully written, powerful, moving and… sadly true. The Vega’s among thousand and thousands of broken Mexican families. So real a story, so many times heard but very few in such a magnificent way. Thank you Andreas.
    Reminded me of an anecdote, different context, but nonetheless somehow related. Back in the times when my older son, José, attended a boarding school in Lake Placid (where he won a best spelling contest not only among his classmates but the whole grade school); he must have been not older than 11, and was called a “spick” by an elder student mainly because of his dark skin. First and only time José got into a fight ever. Later he told me: Mom, I don’t know where my strength and my anger came from…

  10. I’m sure most of your readers know the amazing ending to The Grapes of Wrath., but for those who may not remember, I’ll summarize:

    Rose of Sharon, whose pregnancy we have followed throughout the novel, delivers a stillborn baby boy (a blue baby) that washes down a swollen creek. The final scene–which received much criticism in its day–startles the reader: Rose of Sharon breastfeeds a starving man, too weak to work.

    What are we to make of this scene and how might it relate to the Vegas’ stores, as retold by Andreas Kluth in the Economist?

    Like his cryptic ending in The Winter of Our Discontent, the ending in Grapes can be interpreted in several ways. Hopeful? Hopeless?

    • hopeful… the milk of human kindness.

      however, the comment section on “the economist” web site below “field of tears” are muddled and devoid of empathy.

      must it take a starving (wo)man to relate to a starving (wo)man?

    • @Cheri:

      Re-reading that last chapter of “The Grapes of Wrath”, I noted the discussion about what to do with the body of the dead baby. Just to bury it is the only decent option, although Pa says that doing this is against the law.

      Then someone says, “They’s lots a things ‘gainst the law that we can’t he’p doin’.”

      On whether Rose of Sharon’s losing her baby, and later on getting the starving man to feed from her breast, symbolise that all hope for the Joads is irrevocably lost, I thought I saw a clue when she pulls the man’s head towards her.

      She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.

      That signified hope, I think.

    • A few years ago, our local university produced the stage adaptation of GRAPES OF WRATH. The production ended, naturally, with this Rose of Sharon scene, staged with discretion for a midwestern audience, with RoS’s back to the audience.

      Our public high school wanted to bring the kids to a matinee, but the principal insisted that the final scene be cut. As if 15-18 year old kids hadn’t heard of boobs. Puritanism and provincialism, for sure, but also a refusal to look tough things in the face or encourage students to look them in the face.

      The theater department refused to make the change. The students didn’t see the show.

  11. I think, Philippe, you are right.
    Now, what about the end of The Winter of Our Discontent?
    I believe that book to be even more powerful than GoW, especially in light of the corruption of today’s world.

    • I’ve never read “The Winter of Our Discontent”. It sounds reeely cool, so I’ll put it on my “to read” list.

      And I’ve still to read Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”.

      So much to read, so little done.

  12. @Cheri:

    That’s a fascinating part of the novel to bring up in this context. You ask, “What are we to make of this scene and how might it relate to the Vegas’ stores, as retold by Andreas Kluth in the Economist?”

    I won’t go into how it might relate to the Vegas (although I’d be curious for you to do so).

    But as to what I make of the scene in the novel:

    It certainly surprised me the first time, I seem to remember. I think Steinbeck deliberately gave us a jarring image, an image meant to disgust in other contexts (ie, a young woman full of milk for her baby, making an old, alien, downtrodden, filthy man suck on her).

    It puts an unexpected twist on the meaning of “mammal”.

    But that shocks us into the point which I believe Steinbeck was making: We must be alive not only to our own suffering (which is easy to do) but to that of others as well. We must choose to notice it.

    Here, Rose suffered a tragedy that especially chills any reader who is a parent. She had prepared to give life, then gave death, now had life (milk) left to give with no apparent purpose. But then a purpose revealed itself: the saving of another life.

    So, what I make of the scene is that Steinbeck celebrated empathy.

    • um… didn’t i say that? i can’t be that hard to understand. no joking, this time a fist bump would be nice 🙂

      rose of sharon’s child most likely died of malnutrition, hence her innate understanding of hunger. the act itself was one of empathy as in the image roman charity.

      the responders to “the field of tears” article seem to lack such empathy.

      however, one might have to experience certain things to gain such empathy, human nature may not allow it to be “a choice”. perhaps the closest we can achieve without experience is “sympathy”.

    • Yes, you did say that, dafna, and very well. I suppose I was just elaborating on, or seconding, your comment. A fist bump be thine.

      Regarding the comments on our (The Economist’s) web site: Much, much more could, and perhaps needs to, be said about the different demographics and behavioral incentives of our readers in print vs online, of anonymous and pseudonymous comments, etc etc. But that’s best left for another post. Some day.

  13. @Andreas:

    “…..We must be alive not only to our own suffering (which is easy to do) but to that of others as well. We must choose to notice it…….”

    An excellent point. While we are alive to our own suffering, we are as alive to the suffering of our own “family” – “family” in the sense of others who we identify with, which is usually others of our own “tribe” (I’m eschewing the emotionally-laden word “race”).

    From the viewpoint of the ruling “white” tribe, one is alive to the suffering of members of other “tribes”, but less so than with the suffering of members of one’s own. As examples, one sees this with the reactions to Mexican migrants, to the New Orleans floods, and to tragedies in overseas lands outside Europe.

    In the case of Rose of Sharon, she gave her life-giving kindness to a man who, while not of her family, was, one assumes, of her own “tribe”. Given the era that “The Grapes of Wrath” was written in, would the reactions of readers belonging to the “white” tribe of that era have been the same, had Rose of Sharon offered her breast to a starving man not of her own “tribe”?

    • Very interesting twist in our emerging discussion on Cheri’s question.

      There would, of course, be an evolutionary-biological basis for our tendency to empathize more with people who share more of our DNA….

  14. I’m eschewing the emotionally-laden word “race”

    I, too, prefer tribe over race, but mainly because I don’t necessarily view our tribal affiliations as race-based. While on the subject of eschewing and ethnicity, we must also strive to eschew mistaking correlation for causation. For instance, I don’t believe for a second that low-skilled Caucasian migrant workers with poor English skills would fare much better than Hispanic ones.

    I wonder if there’s a way to (at least somewhat objectively) determine the extent to which the migrants’ Hispanic-ness causes their plight, i.e., the extent to which their situation would be different if—all other things being equal—they were Caucasians. Of course, since the all-other-things-being-equal experiment cannot be performed in practice, accusations of collective racism are as unverifiable as they are unfalsifiable, i.e., left up solely to each individual’s world view. (The Irish weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, either, yet as far as complexion, the Irish are known for being whiter than white.)

    And yes, there is an evolutionary-biological basis for our tendency to empathize more with people who share more of our DNA. However, only a tiny fraction of our DNA expresses itself in our phenotype, which includes our ethnicity. This means that most of our DNA does not express itself in physically observable features. Very difficult to tell how much DNA we share with others just by looking at them.

    Of course, the empathy thing happens subconsciously—we generally don’t think of DNA when deciding how we feel about someone—but the DNA-sharing hypothesis fails to explain why so many people get far more emotional, for instance, over seeing animals getting hurt in a movie than over humans getting hurt. We watch people getting shot and shrug it off, but the moment we see a puppy getting a bullet in the head, we cringe. And the entire vegetarian/PETA crew (I respectfully include myself) seems to be completely moored loose from being guided by DNA considerations in the empathy department.

    E.g., I happen to be rather nonchalantly pro-choice all day long, but the existence of slaughterhouses for animals drives me up the wall. Shouldn’t I be more concerned about human DNA being destroyed during an abortion than about a bunch of cattle getting electrocuted?

    I don’t know. It’s all very fascinating.

    • “….(The Irish weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, either, yet as far as complexion, the Irish are known for being whiter than white.)……”

      The Irish are also known for being Catholic, which was why they were discriminated against in America until as recently as fifty years ago when John F Kennedy, then in the closing stages of his presidential campaign, felt the need to make a special broadcast to the American people to convince them that he wouldn’t, if elected, be taking orders from the Pope.

    • “…….I don’t believe for a second that low-skilled Caucasian migrant workers with poor English skills would fare much better than Hispanic ones…….”

      I’m not as sure of this as you seem to be.

      Caucasian migrant workers with poor English skills would have only one strike against them in the eyes of native-born “white” Americans – their language. Mexican migrants, on the other hand, have two strikes against them – their language, and that they don’t look “white”.

      With two strikes against them, instead of just one, the odds are high that Mexican migrants would be treated a lot worse than non-English-speaking Caucasian migrants.

    • …… the eyes of native-born “white” Americans……..

      I inadvertently omitted “many” in the above sentence, which should be … the eyes of many native-born “white” Americans…….

    • ……the DNA-sharing hypothesis fails to explain why so many people get far more emotional, for instance, over seeing animals getting hurt in a movie than over humans getting hurt……

      I think the depths of one’s empathy with animals is more the result of what level one is in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs than with DNA.

      Need it even be said that if one occupies the top level of the Hierarchy of Needs – or to put it another way, one is a member of, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s delightful phrase, the “Contented Class” – then one is freed from the brute realities of mere personal survival and the pull of the most base DNA-inspired urges.

      One is now free to self-actualise by reading, painting, playing the flute, and dwelling upon universal ethical and spiritual issues like human rights in general, the rights of women, world peace, Global Warming, and, not least, the rights of animals.

      Hence the greater the membership of the “Contented Class” worldwide, the more the general level of consciousness will rise, and the better the lot will be for animals.

    • Yes, the Irish were Catholic, but unlike ethnicity, that’s hardly a DNA-related matter.

      In order to subscribe to your two-strikes hypothesis, one must first define race as an automatic “strike,” which begs the issue itself. Keep in mind that viewing the world through racial lenses cuts both ways. Not only does it lead to racism in the sense of regarding other ethnicities as inferior to one’s own, but it also causes many people to reflexively rush to anyone’s defense who happens to be a member of an ethnic minority. So in some sense, being non-white can actually benefit a person, namely by attracting affection solely on account of non-whiteness and the concomitant automatic persecution assumption.

      Look at Obama. Some whites may attack him because having a black president threatens their sense of white supremacy. Other whites, however, may go easy on him precisely because he’s black, for either (a) they love the fact that there’s finally a minority president and hence are willing to cut him some extra slack, or (b) are worried that if they were as tough on him than they would be on a white president, they’d be slapped with the R-word, and no one likes to be called a racist. Ergo, it is difficult to quantify the extent to which Mr. Obama’s ethnicity helps vs. hurts him with white voters, as opposed to simply being a non-factor, which it hopefully is for most people no matter what color.

      Good point about Maslow’s pyramid. I’ve always had enough food, clothes, and a roof over my head, although that’s as high as I ever got on the contentment ladder. My self-actualization tier (the one right above food/shelter/clothing, at least on my personal version of Maslow’s pyramid) is grossly lacking, yet I do worry about top-level issues like animal rights and global warming.

      Like I said, it’s all very complicated.

  15. Hi Andreas,
    Compassion, compassion we want and need lots more of it. I’ll renew my subscription!

    It is not often one comes across a sentence containing the word ‘trailer’ that is positive…

    “The trailer is dilapidated, but Ms Vega tends to it lovingly.”

    I have other things to say but have no more time now.

    By the way, it’s hard to come up with the odd criticism and/or edge just so one’s praise has more value. That would be disingenuous, too. It is what it is. 🙂

    The Economist is lucky to have you. So there! Bye.

    • Thank you, Geraldine. I’m very touched.

      And I will submit your comment to my editor along with my demand for a commission from each new subscription. 😉

      “….By the way, it’s hard to come up with the odd criticism and/or edge just so one’s praise has more value….”

      There’s no need to manufacture criticism; just remember to share it alike when it does arise naturally — as it will.

  16. Slowly catching up on my reading! I actually read the Christmas edition through and through on one of the flights and your article is excellent and an important contribution to the immigration debate.

    I’m not sure where you toned down the emotion, but the flat statement that only 7 Americans had taken jobs under the Take Our Jobs program and that 40% of the web site responses were hate mail is the clearest articulation of the “problem” I’ve seen. That, plus the fact that people who might have taken those jobs had some expectations of “benefits” shows the complexity of the problem. An alternative headline might have been “Will You Pay More for Fruit and Vegetables to Solve the Immigration Problem?”

    Congratulations on a great article–now if you can only come up a way to cut the Gordian Knot!

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