Photo from a labor camp for Filipino farmworkers. The author’s parents are in the center, holding her older brothers.
Mama saw her boss, Jack Radovich, standing in her row during a sweltering San Joaquin afternoon. She was picking table grapes alone when he suddenly appeared, several yards away, gazing off in the direction of the blue-gray Sierra mountains. She assumed he was surveying his vineyards, visiting his farmworkers like he aways did. He was a hardworking landowner, who usually let his young sons build and deliver the packing boxes with a beat-up, sunburnt pickup truck. The kind of boss who always seemed to know when the grape packers needed more boxes. He didn’t call out or turn toward her, but she hurried his way, eager to be the first one from her team to claim the boxes. Daddy was her foreman.
We demanded, we begged, we guilt-tripped our parents for money. We had reached the age where we cared about our image. We no longer accepted garage sale clothes or Kmart blue-light sale items. We wanted the hip-hugging, sailor-pant flap Chemin de Fer jeans, we wanted the upside-down-U-stitch-on-the-butt Dittos, we wanted the iconic Ralph Lauren polo, and we wanted the clunky Connie Clogs. We wanted the clothes our American middle school classmates strutted around in.
Good vibes started at Movida, my favorite paisa club in Bakersfield, because it was real. Other clubs were only restaurants during the day or warehouses on the fairgrounds. Movida was a big-time deal, built especially for visiting artists who came from everywhere—L.A., Mexico, sometimes Central or South America. It was the dance spot you took your girl to, if you wanted to be among the best dressed, the most beautiful.
Tender Leaves (2021). Ink, charcoal, and gold leaf on cardboard produce box (52.50 x 62.50 in). Photo by Yubo Dong.
Through my art, I intend to highlight the difficult reality faced by American farmworkers, a workforce essential to American life consisting of men and women almost wholly of insecure immigration status. This status makes them vulnerable to predatory practices from agribusiness. I am a former farmworker myself; after immigrating to the United States from a small community outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, I worked nine seasons in the fields of Eastern Washington state to pay for my undergraduate and graduate degrees.
I seek to honor farmworkers and reveal the difficult working conditions they face. Their portraits and scenes from the fields are executed on found produce boxes. When I nest images of farmworkers amidst the colorful brand names and illustrations of agricultural corporations, I hope to help the viewer make a connection, or a disconnection rather, and start creating consciousness about the people that farm their food.
In 1976, when I was eight years old, my Korean American father, a produce wholesaler and former farmworker, decided to become a full-time farmer. My Japanese American mother, descended from a long line of farmers and farmworkers, wanted it too. They had spent their childhoods dreaming of a home on the land, so we moved from Los Angeles to a tenant farm thirty-five miles away.
I grew up in a farmworking family.
No, that’s not accurate—it’s incomplete.
I grew up in a family of farmworking women.
The hands of our sisters, tías, cousins, mothers,
and abuelas have worked the fields, worked to feed us,
worked to raise us, worked to protect and provide for us.
I love my mom but the truth is that my sisters raised me.
Farmwork would not survive without women,
nor would farmworker families.
in the coachella valley
children go to school and learn how to internalize silence
girls sit pretty with pigtails wrapped in bubble-ball hair ties
learn how to cast their eyes downward
so that when they ask the class what do you want to be when you grow up?
boys respond, i want to work in the fields like my dad