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Migrants' Lives as Seen Through Camera Lens

Photographer Rick Nahmias seeks to tell the stories of today's California farm workers with exhibit in Hollywood.

October 20, 2002|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

The black-and-white picture of Josefina Flores may appear to be nothing more than an artful portrait of a stoic, silver-haired woman flourishing in her golden years.

But for Flores, 72, who keeps a shrine to Cesar Chavez in her living room, sitting for the photo was her way of ensuring that the legacy of the pioneer labor organizer is never forgotten.

Flores is one of dozens of California farm workers who agreed to be photographed last summer when Beverly Hills photographer Rick Nahmias set out to tell the story of today's migrant farm workers.

The routine of their daily lives -- from fields, to schools, to makeshift playgrounds -- is captured in 40 glossy prints on display at the Goldwyn Hollywood Library in an exhibit titled "The Migrant Project."

Flores, who considers the day she joined the United Farm Workers in 1965 one of the happiest of her life, said she hopes future generations will continue the struggle against abusive labor practices.

"I want people to see the faces behind those strikes, those protests," she said from the UFW retirement home in Delano. "A lot of people lost everything they had for this movement."

During the farm labor movement of the 1960s and '70s, Chavez's union swelled to about 100,000 members, and strikes and crop boycotts made it a national symbol of an age of unrest in America. In "The Migrant Project," Nahmias tells stories of life, death, work, play and hope as they relate to today's farm workers.

There's the old man from Calexico who sits inside a rail car, holding a $74.08 paycheck for two full days of work.

There's the picture of little Mixtec Indian boys playing unattended in a backyard near the Ventura Freeway in Oxnard.

There's the 11-year-old daughter of farm workers who has already begun her life as an outreach worker by distributing fire extinguishers to poor mobile home residents.

These are the people who took Nahmias into their homes and churches, and who sometimes sneaked him into the fields.

Many did not want their full names used, but most were eager to give the world a glimpse into their lives, Nahmias said.

"It's not fair what we endure in silence," said Maria, a 35-year-old mother of four who has a terminal illness and can no longer harvest crops. "I have no way to prepare my children for what might happen to me or what might come next. Everything is in God's hands."

Nahmias' exhibit is a result of five months of research and some unlikely partnerships with several farm-worker advocacy groups.

Nahmias received about one-third of the project's $20,000 cost from the Kurz Family Foundation and the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC Berkeley. Outreach workers at California Rural Legal Assistance, a nonprofit consortium of lawyers, helped gain access to the farm workers, and eventually kicked in money too.

Santos Gomez, directing attorney at the CRLA Oxnard office, saw Nahmias' project as a chance to portray migrant workers in a way that would capture both the harshness and dignity of their lives.

"This had a direct connection to us and to what CRLA is all about," Gomez said. "The general public has a fairly limited understanding of farm working conditions. It's important to see images that portray farm workers in a proud and dignified manner."

The legal aide group hopes to bring the exhibit to Ventura County soon, and to the other 21 counties where it has offices. The law group has agreed to buy two sets of the photographs.

Nahmias said the project stemmed from his desire to combine art with social issues.

"No matter how far we advance as a society, this is a segment of the population that basically feeds us," he said. "But it's invariably one of the most cast-off and forgotten."

In one of Nahmias' photos, several women are standing outside a bus in the middle of the night, about to begin another long day.

"They weren't moping, they weren't resentful in any way," he said. "They were proud of their work."

They were women like Maura Salazar, 48, of Lamont. The former farm laborer is now a community worker with Lideres Campesinas, a farm-worker advocacy organization based in Pomona. She's inspired by the pictures.

"I saw those photos, and I wanted to work even harder for my women," Salazar said. "A lot of these women, including me at one time, think they can never achieve anything. But little by little, we're all learning."

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