identities

The People In The Fields: Coachella Valley Farm Worker Documentary Project

02/01/17 Kris Fortin

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.



Coachella Valley Farm Workers -Jeronimo Estrada- Jeronimo was born in 1962 in the state of Guerrero in Mexico. Among the reasons he left school was that he had started to see Mexico as a failed state and realized that an education would not necessarily pull him out of poverty, “Many people in Mexico have to live resigned to poverty.” Over the years he walked the hundred mile distance between the U.S-Mexico border to the Coachella Valley six or seven times, sometimes in the desert heat, he says it’s what you had to do. Jeronimo came to the U.S. to work in the fields, he has raised a family and bought a home and he continues to work in the fields. Jeronimo’s son, Castulo, is the Assistant Engineer for Coachella, CA and the Vice President of the Board of the Coachella Valley Water District. In this position Castulo is involved in making decisions and recommendations as to how Riverside County’s resources get allocated. For the first time in history, the population of the Eastern Coachella Valley has a seat at the table when decisions about services and infrastructure are being made. —See the whole project at coachellafarmworkers.com, link in my Bio— #coachella #coachellavalley #farmworkers #immigration #labor #foodsystems #socialjustice #americaneconomy #documentaryphotography #photography #aliciapattersonfoundation #community #generationalprogress

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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.”



Coachella Valley Farm Workers- Juan Torres and Margarita Torres- Working in the fields is hard arduous work that many people do for their entire lives. There is no health insurance and there are no retirement plans. People work until their bodies can’t do it anymore and then they have to figure out how they are going to survive the rest of their lives. If they are lucky they have a little bit of savings or their family helps them. Some people have Medi-Cal or Medicaid but most people don’t. Many retired farmworkers live on only the few hundred dollars they receive from social security every month. Margarita Torres. Juan’s wife, passed away in 2015. —Read the rest of his profile and see the whole project at coachellafarmworkers.com, link in my Bio— #coachella #coachellavalley #farmworkers #immigration #labor #foodsystems #socialjustice #americaneconomy #documentaryphotography #photography #aliciapattersonfoundation #community #generationalprogress #healthcarereform

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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.



Coachella Valley Farm Workers -Silvia Paz- Silvia photographed where she grew up in La Peña, a mobile home park just southeast of the town of Mecca California. Half of her family stayed in the border town of Mexicali because they did not have legal residency in the United States. Her mother worked in the fields in the Coachella Valley in order to sustain both households. She remembers her childhood as carefree but as she started growing up she began to think about inequality. Her mother’s situation seemed especially unfair to her and she began to question the fairness of a system in which there was such a lack of opportunity for people with very limited resources. Silvia excelled in school and received a B.A. in English from the University of San Diego and a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard University with the goal of returning to the Eastern Coachella Valley to work for the betterment of her community. Currently she is interested in trying some of the ideas of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity in the valley. These ideas stem from the fact that many of the countries current policies and systems reflect institutional racism that was in place when those systems were developed, to address this the decision-making matrix in government moving forward should include an equity analysis. —Read the rest of Silvia’s profile and see the whole project at coachellafarmworkers.com, link in my Bio— #coachella #coachellavalley #farmworkers #immigration #labor #foodsystems #socialjustice #americaneconomy #documentaryphotography #photography #aliciapattersonfoundation #community #generationalprogress #GovernmentAllianceonRaceandEquity

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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.



Coachella Valley Farm Workers Maria Machuca (photographed with her father Simon Machuca) Maria credits people working before her in the community as people with vision and sees herself as part of that continuum. She is loving and protective of her community and tries to balance progress with tradition. Her experience has taught her that through a process of building relationships with people that are different than you things get accomplished. “If you do the work, change happens”. She does the work, day after day, year after year. Seeing the positive change in her community nurtures her and gives her energy. — Read the rest of Maria's profile and see the whole project at coachellafarmworkers.com, link in my Bio — #coachella #coachellavalley #farmworkers #immigration #labor #foodsystems #socialjustice #americaneconomy #documentaryphotography #photography #aliciapattersonfoundation #community

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For now, he’s posting regular updates on his Instagram.





Visit the Coachella Valley Farm Workers Project here.

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