Two Joads, One Road, and a way to Decode: A New Method of Viewing America in the 21st Century Sage Stanton

How do the characters Martín and William in Mother Road help us understand generational racial relations and structure in America in relation to Westward Manifest Destiny, opportunity and how it is tied to land?

Mother Road(2019): Mark Murphey (William Joad), Tony Sanch (Martin Jodes). Photo by Jenny Graham.


I will study the relationship dynamic between Martin and William and how their racial differences change their viewpoint on the road and differences between California and Oklahoma. One big part of their relationship is a familial tie of Tom Joad; the varying perspective of him and his representative migration is reflective of each characters experience of identity in America. This all speaks to how race works on a generational level of wealth and labor, we see that despite being related Martin faces a lot more obstacles and discrimination in this play. The main thing that I want to argue is that the systematic way that we can view these characters' dialogue and interactions as an example of how people and race is viewed in America. Part of the land being discussed in the play is the South West of America, such and California, Texas, and New Mexico, land that once traditionally belonged to Mexico. We get this idea of working and taming the land, and Mexican labor and the borders has vastly benefited America. I will read and analyze the specific parts of the play and lines that the characters have in regards to land and labor. An important aspect of my essay will be relating it back to actual historical events that this play is influenced by, there were some articles in our reader that talk about this specific region as well as the generation component of wealth accumulation.


The two main characters are described under the context of looking for something: “William Joad (WL), an old man from Oklahoma looking for his kin, and Martín Jodes (MR), a Mexican-American young man looking for a home”(p.1). These two characters are related by virtue of Tom Joad, a character in the popular Stienback novel, Grapes of Wrath. These characters are looking for kin and home, something that is interrelated. William has immediate prejudice and surprise at finding out that Martín is his relative with the line “Look at him. He’s Mexican!”(p.6). Their common ancestor is Tom Joad, yet they show two very different futures and lived experiences of being an American. Though Martín is the only one who feels the need to prove it, “Oye, I dunno what your issues are, but for the record, I’m born American”(p.7) There is still a need for it to be a Joad on the land, as William says “I’m old. I need a Joad on the land. All Joads gone but you”. On p.16 we get a comparison of ownership of the land of William owning an Oklahoma plot of land, and Martín still waiting on his own plot. Also, they face very different struggles as Martín tells William directly that “Sure you wouldn’t. You’re white”(p.25), in terms of not reading into others racially profiling him. Overall, there is this very interesting dynamic and unsure relationship of these two characters. They have a connection by their common ancestor, and yet perceptions of race and generational differences shape their interactions and personal life experiences.

they show two very different futures and lived experiences of being an American. Though Martín is the only one who feels the need to prove it
]Henry Fonda (Tom Joad) I The Grapes of Wrath (Furore), 1940 director John Ford

In order to understand the context of this play, it is critical to be aware of what this play is responding to and the methods used to comment, build on, and subvert certain preceding American narratives. This plays plot is in relation to (and even a reversal of) John Steinbeck's novel, Grapes of Wrath. This book embodies and is centered around the traditional ‘Westward bound’ narrative. The concept of taming and working the land was a big part of this story and agriculture is a crucial component. The historical events that spurred the journey to California for the Joad family was The Dust Bowl and the mechanization of labor. Labor is conventionally one of the most important concepts when it comes to defining what is and who is “American”, in a context where it can be publicly praised and underplayed or weaponized against other groups. Think of common claims such as, “you can pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” or on the opposite end of the spectrum “immigrants are stealing our jobs!”. And for that reason it is interesting to look at it from the angle Rodolfo Acuñas piece Greasers Go Home where we see there has been historical migration and border shifting between the U.S. and Mexico. Restriction/openness of the border heavily depended on economy and Mexican people frequently had their laboring skills taken advantage of. This helps us understand Martín's family and context considering there is such a large interplay between Mexico and California especially in terms of agriculture. Beyond understanding the labor politics and humanitarian implications, the other component of Grapes of Wrath is the character Tom Joad. And the big disagreements between how they see the same family member is whether or not Tom did the right thing by leaving Sallisaw, Oklahoma.

Bracero Program Farm Worker. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images
Migration is often forced out of hardship and this is what spurs on some of the disagreement and perceptions between these two characters.
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/are-we-headed-for-another-dust-bowl-129556121/ Image of Dust bowl. American Drought of 1930's.

A lot of the conversation and lenses that these two view each other is migration and the division of the Jodes. There is a harsh division between the California and Oklahoma Jodes. One minor character that complicates this is William James Jode who stands in as this liminal space between the two destinations, as well as tying back to the events we saw in the original novel. In Grapes of Wrath we saw the actual funeral of William and the note that is later dug up by our protagonists, ““This here is William James Joad, dyed of a stroke, old man. His fokes bured him becaws they got no money to pay for funerals. Nobody kilt him. Jus a stroke an he dyed... Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered”(p.100). We see how hard it is for that journey to have been made, and there is something to be said for the idea of relocating, William and Martín have very different connections to that word. Migration is often forced out of hardship and this is what spurs on some of the disagreement and perceptions between these two characters. We see the split between the California and Oklahoma Jodes play out in their back and forth about this idea of slack. William starts out by defining and attacking California Joads, “Cowards. All you California Joads, cowards. Can’t take the weather, can’t take a little financial setback, scatter to the four winds like rats”(p.53). William is of the perspective that he had it harder because he stayed behind on the farm during traumatic times of death and financial set back and is understandably resentful for it, all of this steming from the Dust Bowl which is refered to as an "ecological disaster". However, when Martín brings up “Mister. Just so we’re straight. Nobody ever cut me any slack. Never.”(p.54), William shoots back about his mother and starts accusing him of being an anchor baby. William comes from a place of privilege, and we see that just in the arguments and regularized prejudice he is able to use against Martín.

Map of Route 66. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc.

The geographical area is a very important part of this story, as the group that this play follows. The road they take is route 66 and goes through the states Like California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Oklahoma. The southwestern part of the U.S. has a rich history and informs our reading of the characters individually, as well as how they relate to and understand each other. The land is important to both William and Martín but in incredibly different ways. Land, borders, and migration mean a lot to Martín as a Mexican-American. Part of what is important about this land on a large scale level is the idea of ownership. The majority of this land was stolen from Mexico in the Mexican-American war, and belonged to indeginious people long before that. This is evident when we look at Howard Zinns, We Take Nothing By Conquest, Thank God where he outlines the events of the war and how much politics and justifications were used to acquire that land. This historical context allows us to understand some of America's strategies and comprehend what land means to certain populations. We see that shown very accurately and meaningfully in the modern world through our main protagonists.

Mexico before the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

Mother Road helps us compare and contrast America through the simultaneously most complementary and contradicting characters of William and Martín. Also, in relation to Grapes of Wrath it definitely shows some aspects of disidentification. Previous discussions around labor in America were primarily focused on how it affects white populations, while ignoring or downplaying the role of agricultural labor in Mexican-American (or any other minority populations, for that matter) groups. By addressing some of these problems, Mother Road serves as a critique of Grapes of Wrath and serves as some insight to our perceptions of America. Mother Road opens up our eyes to a different America, or la América. Part of what puts them in different positions in life is the component of generational inheritance and wealth. It is very important to be aware of who is passing the farm down to whom. While this play does an excellent job of alerting its audience to overt racism and expelling the false notion that racism is a thing of the past; it does something even larger scale by pointing to the structural component. Throughout the play, one of the main things that structural racism takes form im, is the interactions with legal authority. There is a lot more bias and discrimination against Martín, and he is always made out to be more suspect then William. The other aspect of the structure is in the plot itself: An older white man is in possession of land, and the young Mexican-American is not. America is a highly racialized country that indirectly and directly benefits certain people on the basis of race. We know this when we look at Eduardo Bonilla-Silva's piece, Rethinking Racism: Towards a Structural Interpretation. Racism isn’t always this individualized thing, but it works at a larger scale to inhibit certain minorities from being treated or benefiting from the system equally.

Mother Road helps us compare and contrast America through the simultaneously most complementary and contradicting characters of William and Martín
First-edition dust jacket of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939); artwork by Elmer Hader.
Agriculture takes place in the form of a family tree over this piece of work.
Migrant laborers harvest carrots in California’s Imperial Valley, 1930s. (Dorothea Lange/FSA via Library of Congress)

Martín and William interact over the notion of blood and what role it plays in defining them and their connection. Agriculture takes place in the form of a family tree over this piece of work. Genetics and perceived race, and well as real world race relations. William starts the discourse on the family tree by his action of trying to find the last Joad and mentally needs blood to prove to himself that his is related to Martín. Upon first being introduced to Martín, Roger says to William “It’s all there, Will. DNA, blood tests, family tree, all right there in black and white. Old Tom ran off to Mexico and raised a family there. Some of his descendants came back to California, and he is all that’s left of them”(p.6). We see the illusion of race coming to play here, and the fact that looks don’t say everything about race or genetics. Nearing the end of the play Martín has a moment where the mental reversal of blood empowers him. He starts by taking the title of an Oakie “He’s my ancestor. He lived, farmed and died a true-blue honest-to-God Okie. Which makes me Okie, too, yo”(p.108), followed by, “You know what I’m figuring out, homes? The family tree, it works the other way around too. Shit. I make him Mexican. My blood, man, that sangre runs through my mom and my abuelo and my great Abuelo Tom all the way back to him and makes him Mexican to the bone”(p.109). Mexican, Oakie, or anything else, this helps us to see a multitude of Americans and be cognizant of how they interact with each other.

Work Cited

Acuña, Rodolfo. “Chp 6, Greasers go home”. Occupied America: a history of Chicanos, 1981.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation”. American Sociological Review, 62:3, American Sociological Assn, 1997.

Solis, Octavio, "Mother Road", National Steinbeck Center, Colleen Baily, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2019

Zinn, Howard. “Chp 8, We take nothing by conquest, thank God”. A Peoples History of the United States 1492-Present, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005.