Louis Owens and John Steinbeck's Ghosts

A mystery solved with the help of a professor and a mobster's musician

They would go out on a caravan, playing music from the back of a flatbed truck to keep the workers' spirits up. I had seen photos of such caravans—and I knew that music had been used to help convince people to leave the fields. It was because they could play, they said, that they'd been asked to entertain the workers as they gathered for a big meeting one day in a hall in Pixley.

It was another shock to realize what they were talking about. My own family members had not only taken part in the Great Cotton Strike of 1933 and gotten to know Pat Chambers personally, but they were present when the single most significant event had occurred. The Ortega brothers had been playing when those farmers opened fire in Pixley.

'We were playing in the hall to settle people down, because they were waiting for the people from San Francisco," Tony said.

Louis Owens  won the American Book Award in 1997 for his novel Nightland.
Louis Owens won the American Book Award in 1997 for his novel Nightland.
Tony and Virginia swore that Lucky Luciano took in  one of their nightclub shows.
Tony and Virginia swore that Lucky Luciano took in one of their nightclub shows.


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LOUIS OWENS, 1948-2002

  • His Wikipedia page
  • A beautiful description of Owens, written by one of his best friends, former San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Glen Martin
  • An excellent, lengthy interview with Owens conducted by Western Washington University professor John Purdy

    The Novels

  • Wolfsong, 1995
  • The Sharpest Sight, 1995
  • Bone Game, 1996
  • Nightland, 1996
  • Dark River, 1999
  • I asked if they remembered what they were playing. "Mexican music—we were playing 'Joaquin Murrieta.' Someone said, 'Don't play that!' " my grandfather added, laughing to himself. (The song tells the tale of a notorious bandit—perhaps not the most appropriate material for a union gathering.)

    All the people who wanted to attend the meeting couldn't fit inside the hall, they remembered. And when the shots started, someone began yelling for people not to panic. "Don't panic—they're shooting blanks!" my grandfather remembers someone shouting.

    But they didn't wait around to find out if that was true. They bolted for a back door.

    "I remember Gabriel running outside, and I had a heck of a time keeping up with him," Tony said. "They were yelling at us, 'They're blanks! They're blanks! Don't panic!' [But] I saw chips of the brick building where the bullets were hitting."

    "They were nothing but farmers and ranchers," Román added. "We got scared, and we ran over to the church. The priest was saying, 'Come in, come in! They won't harm you here!' . . . We stayed there a long time." Then they laughed, and I understood why: The Ortegas were the rare Protestant family among Mexicans, and so they were generally never found in Catholic churches.

    They eventually made it back to their eucalyptus camp. "They scared us with that shooting," Román said. The clan soon decided to go back to Riverside to pick oranges. It seemed safer.

    Some of the farmers, Román remembered, were actually sympathetic to the pickers—the smaller ones, anyway. "But you talk about discrimination!" he added. "After the strike, I remember me and Cruz and Manuel [two other brothers], we went to Pixley the next time," but the farmer they had worked for earlier turned them away. "We don't hire Mexicans," Román says he was told, which was consistent with what I'd read: Farmers began to prefer white migrant workers because they were more pliable, not less.

    "I'm sorry, I wish I could hire you," the farmer told him, according to Román—even as he was in the process of hiring about 25 other workers.

    "It was puros gabachos," Román remembered.

    After my great-uncle left, I continued to talk to my grandparents about their later years. Then I took my tapes and transcripts and wrote a new version of my research. Louis and I celebrated over beers. He helped me get the paper placed at another conference, where it got a big reaction (from an audience that was probably just grateful for something not choked with esoteric theory). Tillie Olsen, I remember, came up to me and thanked me, saying she was thrilled to see a young person paying such close attention to the 1930s.

    What I told that audience—aside from my surprise at learning that my own family had taken part in the strike—was that I could see why Steinbeck had decided to turn Tony and Román and their fellow migrant workers into white Okies. He was experimenting, I said, with depicting the frightening nature of mob-think and mob manipulation at a time when these tactics were being wielded with such ominous success by authoritarian political movements in Europe. This doubtless colored his portrayal of the older Communist organizer and his tactics in the novel, so different from the recollections of my grandfather and great-uncle. And he probably also saw an opportunity to highlight the plight of the poor white farmers migrating to California en masse, to make an apathetic public care about a subject it had never shown much interest in before.

    (More recently, thanks to Kevin Hearle, the same friend who first informed me of Louis's death, I've also learned about a nearly unknown 1937 foreword to Tortilla Flat, in which Steinbeck admitted that he'd hated the reaction to the book and argued that he had far more respect for the Mexicans than many readers seemed to take away from the stories. So Steinbeck may not have wanted to repeat that experience.)

    But I also told the conference that, after learning about the actual experiences of the workers who had struck against poor wages in 1933, I realized that Steinbeck had missed a huge opportunity. After all, what American novelist was better suited to write about people like Tony, Román, and their brothers, strumming guitars and blowing horns on the back of a flatbed truck as they stood up for what was right?

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