In the background, silent, with worn faces and weathered hands, a group of people pick produce or fruit, sorting or packing goods. “Bultos,” says Noé Montes, a Los Angeles-based photographer. A bulge in the ground, that’s how most people imagine farm workers, he says.
Montes, who grew up in a family of farmworkers that labored in California’s Central and San Joaquin Valleys, started taking photos of farmworkers early on in his career and mainly on his personal time. But after applying and being awarded a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation, he narrowed his initial idea of doing a statewide farmworker photo project down to the Coachella Valley area.
He eventually settled on an idea: the Coachella Valley Farm Workers project.
Montes interviewed and photographed 15 residents throughout a two-year span starting in 2015. All of them come from different backgrounds. Some immigrated to the US under the Bracero program, others came undocumented looking for work in the fields, and some were children of farm workers that went to college and now returned in hopes of uplifting their community.
Montes said he didn’t want to show the common image of a farmworker hunched over in the fields, but an intimate side of their lives at home, at a playground where they grew up, or with their partners.
“They’re not a symbol of poverty or a metaphor for inequality,” Montes said. “They’re people.”
Montes said that he understands that life working the fields is tough. Many of the issues that farmworkers were fighting over 50 years ago — like shading or bathrooms — or dealing with — homelessness, domestic violence — are still the ones seen in their lives.
Yet, his upbringing gave him an appreciation for the social assets that farmworkers possess.
“Because I grew up in that community I know what those people are like: very intelligent, very sophisticated thinkers. They have so much to give to their own community but also to society in a larger way, our understanding of each other,” Montes said.
Montes is currently working on exhibitions locally to showcase his photos.
Visit the Coachella Valley Farm Workers Project here.