Migrant farm workers tell their stories with art at Folklife Center

MIDDLEBURY — For “A.B.,” the artist behind one of the dioramas on display at the Vermont Folklife Center, the family with blank faces near the back of the box represents her own experience as an undocumented migrant worker in Vermont.
“The majority of people here don’t see us. You see our work, but not our faces,” she said, gesturing to the cow barns made of brightly colored paper and the backdrop of cows in a field within the diorama.
A.B. presented her diorama, “Beauty can be deceiving,” last Friday at the opening of the show called “Invisible Odysseys,” where A.B.’s diorama is one of a series created by Mexican farm workers on dairy farms throughout Addison and Franklin counties. The dioramas, on display until April 28, are accompanied by statements from the artists in both Spanish and English ranging from stories of the long, dangerous desert crossing to tales of life on a Vermont farm.
Castleton artist B. Amore curated the exhibit, which she said is a way to share the voices of a population that is often confined to the shadows by fear, isolation and the language barrier.
“We do a lot of debate about immigration, but we hear very, very little from the people who are being talked about,” said Amore.
In the spring of 2009, Amore read an article about undocumented workers on Vermont farms. She had recently done a six-room exhibit at Ellis Island in New York about the Italian immigrant experience in the U.S., and having grown up in a family of Italian immigrants herself, she could see some similarities in the experience.
Amore sought out Susannah McCandless and Ethan Mitchell, a New Haven couple active in the migrant farm worker community. At the time, McCandless was teaching Spanish to farmers around the county. McCandless, Mitchell and other members of the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition helped Amore to pick out farms to approach about the art project.
At the gallery opening, Amore said she originally set out to document the stories herself.
“I thought they would tell me stories and I would make art of it,” she said. “But that was a joke.”
As she listened to “Ismail,” the first farm worker with whom she spoke, describe his trip across the desert — the stones that cut into his shoes, animal skulls in the moonlight, and echoing wind — she wondered aloud if he would be willing to create a piece of artwork from his own story.
Thus was born the “Invisible Odysseys” project.
Amore, McCandless and Mitchell provided art supplies and boxes, and the participating farm workers used found objects to create their dioramas in the spare moments they found over a series of months.
“A Mexican Immigrant,” who lives in near isolation as the only Spanish-speaker on his farm, spoke of his artwork: a sandy scene at the forefront, littered with rocks and animals made of electrical wire, with rolling green hills in the background.
“This was the first time I had tried to explain the desert crossing … and the danger to those who crossed,” he said at last week’s exhibit opening, through an interpreter. “Behind is a representation of Vermont’s rich countryside, which sustains us and gives life to our families.
“My excuses for anything poorly done,” he added.
Mother and daughter “Maria” and “Anabel” presented their diorama, “Illusion,” which centered on the small wooden house where the family had lived before moving to the United States. As they created the work, Maria told Anabel, a middle-schooler, stories of their life there.
“I wanted my daughter to see how we lived in Mexico,” she said.
Maria said that, come November, the family’s concrete block house back in Mexico will be mostly built and her two oldest children will be in university.
“With that, our dreams for our journey here will have been realized,” she said.
Many wrote in artists’ statements about their motivations for traveling thousands of miles from home to work. A farm worker calling himself “The Dreamer” wrote:
“I want my kids to go to college and hope that they become doctors, lawyers, or whatever they want to study, so that they can give their own families a better quality of life than they had themselves. So that they don’t have to abandon their families and put their lives at risk crossing the desert, walking five days, the last two without water or food. Because they don’t have what is necessary for their families. Believe me, I worked very hard in my country to be able to give my family what they needed, but with 500 pesos (42 dollars) a week you can’t do much.”
The traveling exhibit also includes a map that traces the journeys of many of the farm workers she spoke with. The map is lined with varnished gloves given to her by the farm workers and ornamented with “milagros,” small silver charms that many in Mexico wear for good luck.
The show is accompanied by a book that brings together stories from the workers, photographs of the artwork and other writing on migrant farm workers in the state. The book will be sold wherever the exhibit is on display, and is also available at bamore.com.
The exhibit, which runs until April 28, will also be accompanied by documentary screenings, panel discussions and workshops, as well as a graduate-level course for educators through Castleton State College, run at Treleven Farm in New Haven.
Overall, said Amore, she and the other organizers of the exhibit — McCandless, Ethan Mitchell, Cheryl Mitchell of the Addison County Migrant Workers Coalition (also Ethan’s mother), and many others who helped to translate and pull the exhibit together — are simply hoping to tell another side of the story.
“My hope is that the show will take people beyond the idea of ‘immigrant’ and ‘undocumented worker’ and show them the reality,” Amore said.
See more of the artwork and read a statement from one of the Mexican artists at addisonindependent.com.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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