Campus of Northern Arizona University, 2015
In the spring of 2015, I joined a group of students on a three-day field trip to Yuma, AZ. I had been invited to be a semester-long guest artist for the class Just Food, taught by Dr. Kimberly Curtis and Michelle James’ Slam Poetry, Art, and Activism students. For me, the excursion was an exploratory research trip in preparation for designing an art action, which would be the culminating event for the semester. This first-year seminar delved into what our food system looks like for farm laborers, animals, the soil and their collective effects on the climate. This field-trip specifically focused on the daily migration of Mexican workers in sustaining the U.S.’s winter greens production.
On the first day, a local farmer, dressed in a blue dress shirt and jeans, led our morning tour and answered our questions as we drove the dirt roads through thousands of acres of flat tilled and demarcated farmland. I was awed by the amount of leafy greens spread out across the desert of the Yuma Basin, hydraulically engineered for large-scale industrial agriculture. At one stop, we observed a crew bent over in the hot sun harvesting lettuce by chopping it with knifes and then conveying and packing the heads into cardboard boxes that would be shipped to grocery stores and restaurants across the U.S. Hundreds of crews were working the fields that day, as February is the prime month for the winter lettuce harvest.
That afternoon we sat in a hot conference room trying to stay awake as we visited with the director of Campesinos Sin Fronteras, an advocacy group promoting access to health, housing, education and better pay for farmworkers.
At 4:00 a.m. the next morning, we made our way to San Luis, AZ, along the U.S./Mexico border. Dozens of white buses sat idling while hundreds of sleepy farmworkers stood waiting to leave for the fields. We spent an hour visiting with those willing to share their stories amidst the hectic bustle of the early morning darkness. Three hours later, the streets and parking curbs were deserted, not a bus or farm worker in sight. It was quiet and vacant.
Later that morning, we drove out into the fields to meet a work crew hoeing weeds. As we pulled up, a dozen elderly Mexicans were just finishing their rows ready to take their break. We visited with them and our two tour guides, women from a local Catholic charity. They told us that the best way we could support and show our gratitude to them for what they do each day was through sharing their story, a story of sacrifice, of thousands of Mexican farmworkers who leave homes and families to make the daily migration across the border.
Could our government and agriculture corporations come together to solve this unkind and immoral policy? If there was a desire to do so, yes. The solution is simple.
That afternoon, we sat in an air-conditioned conference room at the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector. The difference between the smiling and happy farmworkers and the fearful and stern-faced law agents was noticeable. “Cleaning up the clutter” was the catch phrase of the visit. They were doing their job and their job is to guard the border.
People, all doing their jobs, jobs insured because we have a broken immigration system, where migration is not allowed to naturally be open and free.
Storyline for Your Salad Undressed
Migrant farm laborer walk: 12 Central American farm laborers begin a symbolic walk from the Franke Business School building on the south campus to the border of the United States on north campus. They all wear identical white masks symbolizing their nameless personhood, their individuality and dignity as humans having been stripped away by the economic structure that binds them.
The laborers are led by a man in a business suit and the Statue of Liberty, both on stilts. The business man symbolizes the actual process that occurs when corporate farmers travel to places like Oaxaca to recruit workers for their farms in the U.S.
The 12 laborers carry garden tools, shovels and hoes, as they march north. They are followed by a group of social activists carrying signs and pushing wheel barrows full of iceberg lettuce heads. The lettuce symbolizes the product grown and harvested by these migrant laborers. Like the masks, the lettuce heads symbolize the sameness, the loss of individuality of each migrant. As they travel the route, the activists hand out the lettuce heads to students they meet along the way; they also give them a flyer, which tells the stories of specific Latin American students who are attending NAU. They make their walk to the border/wall outside the Student Union joined by passing students and faculty.
The border wall: A border wall, built of PVC tubing, rust colored, stands outside the Student Union. It has a doorway where the migrant laborers enter through. Once on the other side of the wall, the business man puts on an Uncle Sam costume — a suit coat and a top hat painted with red, white and blue stripes. The migrant laborers cross through the border and are greeted by Uncle Sam who is still on stilts. Two Border Patrol agents, in costume, stand on either side of him. Uncle Sam shakes each of the migrant’s hands as they enter the doorway. After being greeted, the migrants lean their hoes against the white migrant bus, put on white aprons and latex gloves, and begin making and serving tossed salads for students and faculty to enjoy.
The bus: A white NAU transit bus is parked on the sidewalk north of the border wall, labeled with the name of an agri-business company.
Uncle Sam’s salad undressed: The migrant laborers serve Uncle Sam and his children — students and faculty who are watching the performance — and invite them to sit at the tables and eat their bowls of salad. As the feast begins, students from the Slam Poetry Class read poems to the gathered audience. The poems become more political and more personal, and Uncle Sam and the two Border Patrol agents herd the migrants together forcing them back across the border. The migrants are then handed new signs with slogans that make us think about migrant rights and abuses, and they begin their walk back to the business building.