At the core of Mother Road lies conflict and tension. The protagonist Martín inexplicably encounters constant physical and emotional violence, and when looking through the lens of structural racism, much of this can be explained. Solis intentionally obstructs Martín’s journey along the Mother Road through creating racial contestations that test and ultimately change Martín. As a result, Martín’s journey is both physical and metaphorical: he ends up inheriting the Joad family farm, yet also grows in his understanding of racism. Through the immense adversity Martín faces throughout his life, he is able to see the racialized society that he lives in. At the play’s climax, he realizes the pointlessness of race: the inequity and pain Martín faces is not simply a result of being Mexican, but a result of being human. Solis posits that humanity is united by the universal sentiment of struggle and growth, making a bold argument for an inclusive America.
How does the character Martín in Mother Road develop in his understanding of racism?
A little under a year ago, I had the opportunity to go Oregon Shakespeare Festival to see Mother Road written by Octavio Solis. After both seeing and reading the play, Mother Road to me represents a journey of the protagonist, Martín, along the route home. Martín will grow to replace William Joad, the ailing yet steadfast head of the Joad family farm, while overcoming numerous racial and societal obstacles to do so. In fact, racial contestations throughout the play intentionally impede Martín along his journey, representing unfair obstacles in his honest struggle towards prosperity. Yet instead of surrendering to this inequity, Martín undergoes both physical and emotional abuse, and at Mother Road’s climax, he realizes the pointlessness of race. As a result, in Mother Road, Octavio Solis highlights inherent challenges that minorities face simply from their race, yet goes beyond to call for a more inclusive America. I plan to analyze the play in relation to the historical context of Mexican immigration in the United States, and their exploitation by U.S. capitalists. Furthermore, I plan to relate the play to commentaries about race and society from Eduardo Bonilla-Silvia and Rodolfo Acuña.
In Rethinking Racism: Towards a Structural Interpretation, Eduardo Bonilla-Silvia argues that racism should be interpreted as an outcome of a racialized social system. He emphasizes the importance of a contemporary structure in reproducing racial phenomena, claiming that “the framework of racialization allows analysts to explain overt as well as covert racial behavior” (Bonilla-Silvia 350). The play Mother Road is an excellent example of this, highlighting how Martín’s struggles as a character can be explained by the structural inequalities in American society towards Latinos. Multiple times throughout the play, conflict arises seemingly out of nowhere, such as when fueling up at a gas station or stopping on the side of a road. These often intensify quickly to life-threatening scenarios for Martín, despite his best attempts at de-escalation. Struggle and conflict in Mother Road is defined solely by Martín’s skin color and Latino descent, and while the antagonists aren’t racist, the system they live in is. A racialized society, and not explicit prejudice motivates antagonists, mirroring Bonilla-Silvia’s claims of racism as a result of flawed structure and leadership.
One of the main conflicts in Mother Road is between Martín and William. From the very beginning there is distrust and tension, as William proclaims to Martín: "Awright, awright. If you’re indeed a Joad, or “Hoe-dez”, as you say, then, God help us, you might be inheriting my farm." (Solis 9) William’s expectations of a white heir to the Joad family farm are met disappointingly with Martín despite the fact he is qualified for the role. William recognizes his harshness quips:
“We are not all racist” - William (Solis 11).
Although initially this statement has no meaning, William’s support for Martín makes him one of the only characters in the play that challenge structural racism. At the end of the play, William is truly willing to give his life’s work, the land he and his ancestors raised, to Martín because he looks beyond race to see a hardworking member of the Joad family.
A deeper understanding of structural racism in Mother Road comes through examining history. In Greasers Go Home, Rodolfo Acuña documents the history of the United States’ attitude towards Mexican immigrants, “describing them as physically weak, irregular and indolent, their only virtues being that they were docile and worked for low wages” (Acuña, 165). Since the origin of the United States, powerful capitalists and politicians used racism to organize social relations in a way that benefited them. Racism against Latino immigrants justified cheap labor, and thus within a few short years, it became an independent element in the operation of the United States’ social system. This is the basis of the structural racism that pervades Mother Road. Martín realizes this at the climactic end of Act One, as he proclaims “I know there is no winning, I know I am took, I know my own soul is warring with itself and will LOSE! No matter what I try, it will lose! Like it always loses!” (Solis, 65). When facing conflict, whatever decision Martín makes always results in his loss. Truly, in a racialized society there is no way for minority groups to benefit because of the ingrained racial attitudes of the majority.
As much as Octavio Solis builds up Mother Road’s climax through racial tension and conflict, his resolution amends these wrongs and matures Martín as a character. During the standoff between Curtis and William, Martín bizarrely proclaims that we are all Mexican:
"You a Mexican too. If you suffer shit to keep your hold on the land you work, you’re a Mexican. If you’re catchin grief from the cops just for taking up space, you’re a Mexican. If you got a raw deal that keeps you poor and miserable and watching your back all the time, you’re a Mexican. And if you got any kind of dumb faith in the goodness of some God out there who will deliver you from the shit of daily life, then fuck, you’re as Mexican as I am." -Martín (Solis 109).
Curtis fails to recognize this in the heat of the moment and shoots William, but has an abrupt change of heart and joins the ragtag Joad family. Martín proclaims that if anyone has ever suffered, been treated unfairly, or felt millions of different wrongs, they are just as Mexican as him. Struggle is universal among humans, and in the face of our shared experiences, race becomes a trivial concept. In fact, everyone in the Joad family has faced immense adversity and are bonded together by it despite the fact they are Mexican, Choctaw, white, and black.
Mother Road calls for a more inclusive America through the struggles of Martín and his eventual realization of the pointlessness of race. As William lies dying on the ground of his farm while forgoing life-saving medical treatment, his blood soaks into the soil and symbolizes Martín inheriting the farm. The farm truly belongs to the Joads, tied to the land through history, struggle, and blood. Being both Latino and the next generation of Joads, Martín suggests that even something as sacred as the Joad family farm is colorblind in nature. Its value lies not in race, but in the determination of its caretakers and the prosperity it grants to the family. Indeed, Martín and his crew are as hardworking as their ancestors making them true Joads. This by nature makes Martín as American as William, and conversely, William as Mexican as Martín. They are family, unfettered by the constraints of race.
Overall, Mother Road takes great lengths to not only expose structural racism in America but also posit a future where America is accepting of all. Virtually all conflict in the play arises from racial contestations, which Bonilla-Silvia argues is the logical outcome of a racialized society. In this context, audiences can see the flaws in current societal attitudes, manifested through the blatant injustice Martín faces. While the issues presented in Mother Road are immense, Solis argues that race is arbitrary to the Joads, and should be for America. Martín’s development throughout the journey allows him to see that mankind should be united by shared experiences of adversity, joy, and everything human. In the end, it is family, struggle, and not race, that unites the Mexican, White, African-American, and Choctaw Joads.