During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Dorothea Lange lived and worked in San Francisco taking studio portraits of the city’s prominent residents. However, with the onset of the Great Depression she set out to create a photographic record of those countless Americans who were faced with few options other than to endure what was a period of unrelenting economic hardship.
She took a job as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal agency. In 1936, Lange was in Nipomo, California, at a campsite of pea pickers thrown out of work after the crop was destroyed by freezing rain. She spotted a woman sitting in front of a tent with her young children and stopped to take her picture. The mother told Lange that they had been living on frozen peas and wild birds. The photograph, titled “Migrant Mother,” captures a woman, her dark hair pushed back, holding a babe in arms. Two children are leaning against her, one on each side, their faces turned away from the camera. The woman, looking far older than her 32 years, is staring off into the distance, her right hand raised, the fingertips resting on her cheek, her nails soiled. Deep lines are etched at the corners of her narrowed eyes, as if she had been squinting for a very long time into an unknowable future. Her face, in that moment, is not a pose but a portrait of struggle and uncertainty.
Clearly she is not alone, for the heartland of America in the 1930s was ravaged by dust and wind while poverty stalked waves of itinerant farmers, refugees from loss and from lives known but now gone. In aging, listing cars, loaded with frayed possessions, caravans of migrants drifted westward in search of a place where they could finally stop and rest and breathe and find work.
Lange’s migrant mother became an iconic symbol of a people, of a time, the image bleak yet suffused with a moving humanity. The black-and-white photograph was published in newspapers and magazines from coast to coast, a testament to those lost and not yet found.
It’s not a stretch to imagine the resistance of locals, as well as government agencies — state and federal — to these dust bowl migrants arriving with desperation etched on their faces as they searched for refuge.
And I don’t think it’s a stretch to see the thread that connects that migrant mother and a more contemporary one when looking at a Reuters photograph taken at our southern border. A woman, having left Honduras, a violent country where safety for herself and her children is nothing more than a precipice, joined a caravan heading north. What existential exigencies must be embedded in her experience to cause her to make a harrowing journey of hundreds and hundreds of miles, with children in hand, fear and uncertainty the only constants.
The photograph shows this mother, her children clinging to her arms, escaping from exploding canisters of tear gas while she looks over her shoulder, her distress writ large. Across a concrete culvert is a fence, and beyond that fence is America.
Of course, we cannot simply open our southern border. And we already have in place laws regarding asylum. There has to be a humane way of enforcing those laws that obviates anything resembling the despicable policy known as Zero Tolerance (245 children are still in government custody; 175 parents have been deported).
As the caravan of migrants drew closer to our border, the administration did not send additional immigration resources that would have expedited the legal process; rather, Trump sent troops. It was a reprehensible use of our military, meant as a political ploy before the midterm elections, transparently cynical.
America has a history of caring for the least among us. It also has a history of embracing the huddled masses. All we need is the political will.
Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.