We went to the bathhouse because it was Dorian’s thirtieth birthday and, being the kind of friend he was, he wanted to do something for himself—partying at Chicago’s Boystown, a neighborhood we’d frequented when we’d been undergraduates at Iowa—and then something for us, especially for Aviraj, who was Dorian’s closest friend and still a virgin. He had flown for this, Aviraj had; I had flown, too, but it wasn’t as big of a deal, because I had come from New York—costing me around $250—and he had from Mumbai—which could’ve cost shy of $1,000 (not that I asked). This infamous holding-out on Aviraj’s part had come, on the one hand, because of his spiritual beliefs and, on the other, because—idealistic as he was—he had never been able to keep a man, which had brought about that soothing old joke of ours where we told him not to worry; he was surely the type of guy who never dated and then, bam!, he’d marry on his first try. The group would laugh at this jealous joke, yet a jealous silence would always follow, for not only did we believe it to be true, but we also believed Aviraj to be the only one of us who had marriage in him.
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.
When I was finally allowed to leave home on my own, my sister accompanied me on the train from Moscow. For the first leg, anyway. In the morning, she would get off and I would go on to Croatia, alone. We knew the instructions well. No sooner were we inside the sleeper cabin than my sister set to blocking the air vent with clothes and duct tape. It was 1998, and, along with the first popular elections and counterfeit jeans, the Russian Wild Nineties had brought rumors of enterprising thieves who pumped sleeping gas through trains’ ventilation systems, and then went through the cars relieving unconscious passengers of their valuables. Local friends had cautioned us to keep our passports on our persons at all times. But at sixteen, I was short, shy, self-conscious, and prone to vivid imaginations. The prospect of strangers running their hands over my body—unconscious or not—seemed far worse than that of losing my passport, so I left mine in my bag on the seat as a decoy.
The baby would be fine, Saeed’s wife said. As the family gathered around the dinner table for his special dessert, a beet cake with yogurt icing, and his home-brewed beer, Saeed agreed to watch the kids on Thursday so that his wife could have a day to herself. They were his grandchildren, too, after all. Although it was only his fifth day in the new country, he had already gotten over his jet lag, touched and kissed his family multiple times, and been given a tour of the neighborhood. He had also bought a road bike and signed up for a spot at the community garden. Now it was time to get acquainted with the grandkids.
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.
The coyote ambles down the middle of Chester Street
and I mistake it for its domestic cousins
but it’s stouter, a strange gray white,
directionless, undecided. My dog may know
it’s not a dog because he stares blankly back at it
without his temperamental bark and growl.