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Interpreting the Evidence

Mexican Migrants on the Road, 1936

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Eras:

    The Great Depression and WW II (1929 - 1945)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Mexican Migrants on the Road, 1936 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
A family of Mexican migrants on the road with tire trouble, California, 1936. Dorothea Lange, photographer.
Historical Context
Mexicans have a long history of farming in the U.S.  Some accounts suggest that Mexican farm laborers have been here since the land in our Southwest was taken from Mexico.

More than one million agricultural workers migrated to the U.S. in the early twentieth century.  The majority of them found work on small family farms in California because the white owners of these farms welcomed cheap labor.  Most migrant workers in California today are of Mexican descent.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Mexican immigrants especially hard.  Along with the job crisis and food shortages that affected all U.S. workers, Mexicans and Mexican-Americans had to face the additional threat of deportation. As unemployment swept the U.S., hostility to immigrant workers grew, and the government began a program of repatriating immigrants to Mexico. The farm workers who remained struggled to survive in desperate conditions. Bank foreclosures drove small farmers from their land, and large landholders cut back on their permanent workforce.  As with many Southwestern farm families, a great number of Mexican-American farmers discovered that they had to live a migratory existence and traveled the highways in search of work. This photograph, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, is part of the Farm Security Administration collection that documents conditions of farm workers during the Great Depression.

In later years, the Bracero Program allowed Mexican immigrants to work on U.S. farms when the country had a shortage of laborers due to involvement in World War II and the Korean War.
Essential Question
Why do people migrate?
How does migration affect the migrants and the communities into which they migrate?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and explain the impact of migration on this family.
Historical Challenges
What kinds of work did migrant farm workers do during the Great Depression? What happened to many migrant farmers during that time period? Compare this to what happened to industrial workers in cities.
Research the conditions farmers faced during the Dust Bowl years. What happened to many of them? Why did this happen? Can it happen again?
Interdisciplinary Connections
English Language Arts: Write three journal entries describing the experiences of one of the members of this family.
Science: What are the dangers that farm workers face in working with chemicals for their jobs?