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.
There are people who express with songs what they can’t express with their own words. My grandfather is one of these people.
Papá José, as we grandchildren call him, is a reserved man, but he has a unique way of talking about his life and expressing his feelings. His hair is now covered in white and his face in lines. He usually wears a pair of gray pants, a flannel shirt, his old sandals and his light brown sombrero. He’s a working man of the countryside.
I visit him only once a year. Like many people from my country, I go to Mexico every December to spend Christmas and New Year’s with my family. It has been twelve years since I left home, the house where I grew up, the dirt streets and brick houses where I spent my childhood on the outskirts of Morelia, the capital of Michoacán. I went to elementary school there, then junior high school, until my family and I moved to the United States. So much time has passed since then. And now I have repeated the family history. Three years ago, I left my parents’ house in California to go study on the other side of the world. I can travel only once a year. The distance and time make me miss my family a lot. I question why we are constantly moving: Why do we keep looking for a better life somewhere else? This is why, for some time now, I have felt the need to talk more with Papá José, to know more about his life. I try to take advantage of every visit to talk to him and listen to his stories.
A fruit tramp family of the 1930s stayed in many places for short periods of time. We arrived, picked the crop, and moved on. That’s why we were called tramps, nomads, and many other things not nearly as complimentary. Our shelters while picking could be the loft of a barn, a converted hen house, or a small sleeps-two tent. On occasion if you were in an especially nice place, you might have a cabin or a large canvas-covered dwelling with a wooden floor. If we had a place of permanency, it was the car or truck that took us to the next job: we might spend the winter in California or pick apples in Washington State. It was all dictated by the season. Packing and moving was as much a part of our life as picking the crop.
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.