Survivor Stories

Most Americans have seen pictures of the dust bowl – dust storms brought on by the drought that devastated the great plains states during the 1930s. That particular drought ended, but the dust storms never did. Those of us who grew up on the plains have seen them up close and in person.

I’ve talked about my mother’s family, who ran the local newspaper, but my dad was a farmer and his cash crop was cotton. Farming on the plains has always been a perilous business. My parents used to shake their heads in continued disbelief when they would tell how two months before my sister and I were born – in October, harvest season – my dad’s entire cotton crop was wiped out in a hailstorm. Still, through hail, drought, market fluctuation, and yes, sandstorms, our farm and others like it survived.

In the 1950s, when I was in elementary school, survival of small cotton farms was dependent upon the annual arrival of migrant farm workers. Machine harvesting of cotton wouldn’t become commonplace in our part of the plains until they early 1960s, so the seasonal workers – mostly from Mexico – were essential.

They would begin to arrive in mid-October. We were poor, but they were poorer. Living conditions for most of them were appalling. A few had the resources to rent small houses, but the rest lived in shacks with metal roofs that had been constructed across the road from the cotton gin. Those shacks were small and windowless and had to have been stifling when occupied by a family of six or eight. They may have had running water, but no proper kitchens or bathrooms.

If schools hadn’t yet closed for the annual harvest break when the workers arrived, they would enroll their younger children in school. The kids would pick up as much English as they could, and would sometimes talk with us enough to teach us a few words of Spanish, but they did so reluctantly. Occasionally there would be kids who were sufficiently fluent in English they could have told us their stories – where they came from, what their homes in Mexico were like, where they’d been and what they’d seen – but none of them ever did. They kept to themselves, worked hard, and moved on.

They had moved around so much that most of the kids were a few grades behind. There would be six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds placed in first grade. The ones with the least grasp of English always looked a little stunned to be there; the ones with the most English were able to articulate their intelligence and eagerness to learn. Ten year-olds would frequently get placed in second or third grade, twelve-year-olds probably went to the fields. I used to wonder how they would ever catch up with their schooling. I didn’t want to believe they never would.

Did they have plans for the future beyond the next farm town, the next crop? I never asked. Part of me was just too shy, but I think I already knew there was a good chance it would make me very sad to know the answer.

Now I want to know.


I could declare that I survived poverty, drought, hail, and tornadoes, but I had a home and a community, and lived in a time and place where there was help for farmers who were struggling. The truth is, although we struggled, we always knew we would survive.

For marginalized individuals and groups – migrant farm workers whose work requires them to give up their homes and communities; victims of extreme weather events who have no safety nets;  those forced to flee their homes to escape war and violence;  those caught up in a criminal justice system that is anything but colorblind; and so many more – there are no such assurances. And yet many do survive. I want to hear and share those stories.

NOVEL & MEMOIR SUBMISSIONS: send first 50 pages, brief synopsis and author bio.
SHORT STORIES: submission deadline for our 2019 Anthology is February 28, 2019. Send up to 7,000 words plus brief author bio.