A few years ago, playwright Octavio Solis journeyed from Oklahoma to Bakersfield. Members of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas celebrated the 75th year anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath" by reenacting and documenting the journey of the fictional Joad family from Oklahoma to the fields of the San Joaquin Valley.
Along the way, Octavio rediscovered the migrant mythology and hopeful optimism amidst hardship so endemic to the California experience. When the Steinbeck Center troupe arrived at the Sunset Labor camp in Arvin, they were greeted by, among others, local Chicano artist Jorge Guillen. A spoken word poet and talented muralist who has since decorated our city with beautiful Latinx-inspired murals from Lamont to the bluffs, Jorge also inspired Octavo through his vivid poetics of love and loss, hope and tragedy, all rooted in the soil of the San Joaquin Valley.
Recently, I returned from Capitol Hill with our state humanities council to educate and inform congressional representatives of the important humanities work occurring across our state, including here in the San Joaquin Valley. Among my messaging was the impact of local artist Jorge in inspiring Octavio’s recent theatrical production, "Mother Road."
Having debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2019, "Mother Road" recently completed a stint at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. It was extremely gratifying to sit among a packed theater, nestled along the banks of the Potomac River, watching talented actors portray the interrelated histories of Okie descendants and Mexican immigrants. "Mother Road" weaves together beautifully the common destinies of the multiracial peoples who have toiled in the fields of the American West. It also shares a message of regeneration and a call for unity amidst a time of great divisiveness. The play is therefore incredibly timely and relevant.
Perhaps most impressive is that the life story, poetry and art of Bakersfield’s own Jorge Guillen served as an inspiration for "Mother Road." The protagonist, Martín Jodes, played by actor Tony Sancho, is loosely-based on various aspects of Jorge Guillen’s life, worldview and art. As the play unfolds, Martín Jodes must come to grips with his own identity as the inheritor of the Okie past and legacy. At the same time, the play’s other protagonist, the dying Okie William Joad, played by actor Mark Murphey, must reconcile his own troubled past and what exactly his family legacy will be. It is a plot line relevant to the future of our city and county in many ways.
We all should celebrate that a young man’s life experiences on the outskirts of Bakersfield inspired a celebration of art and culture so near to where our nation’s forefathers once walked and fought for the survival of the republic. "Mother Road," inspired in part by the poetics of Jorge Guillen, offers us a message of unity and solidarity when it is needed most.
I hope that our local educational institutions, arts community, philanthropists and foundations can pull together to bring this important theatrical performance to Bakersfield. Our community, especially our young people, deserve to see this performance and celebrate the rich cultural legacy of the Okie migration and its interconnected history with other multiethnic and multicultural migrations to the place we call home. Let’s work together to bring the "Mother Road" back home to the fields of the San Joaquin Valley.
Oliver A. Rosales is a professor of history at Bakersfield College and advisory board member for California Humanities.