‘We Feed You’ Art Exhibit Exposes Realities of Agricultural Work

Farm labor reimagined

1961

“We Feed You” is a touring exhibit by Victor Cartagena, who relocated to the Bay Area from El Salvador following the Salvadoran Civil War. Dynamic and interactive mediums of art mix with photographs and charcoal murals to bring the stories of farm workers and labor activists into visual representation. Originally on display at the San Jose Museum of Art, “We Feed You” will be at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art History (MAH) from April 6 to July 22.

 La Santa Cena, 2016

Photo by Justin Tahara
An American Flag is dropped into a sulfur-filled jar in the “We Feed You” exhibit.

The name of the piece, “La Santa Cena,” is intended to call back to the famous Last Supper in the Bible, Cartagena said. Twelve plates sit around a table, each for the 12 apostles. On closer observation of the table you will see a face staring back at you from each plate. Slightly blurred and in harsh black and white gradient, these faces signify those who grow, pick and package the meals to the symbolic plates their faces decorate.

The exhibit is an elaboration on a meme in which a white family is sitting around a dinner table praying and thanking Jesus for their plentiful meal. Cartagena wants those who pray to not only thank Jesus but Jesús, a metaphor for the farm workers who work long hours to bring their meal to their table.

The centerpieces of the table are jars and alcohol bottles, sealed with corks. All of the bottles are empty of their liquids, replaced by pale yellow-powder sulfur, the same chemical farm workers are exposed to in fields in place of pesticides, Cartagena said.

“As soon as you touch [powdered sulfur] — I did it myself in order to understand what they were telling me — as soon as you put it in your hand, it is almost impossible to get rid of that odor,” Cartagena said. “[…] They told me that they can’t really enjoy the food because everything they touch is sulfurous. We taste the flavor of the tomatoes, of the lechuga but they, the ones who are cutting them and picking them and packaging them, they cannot enjoy the taste because ething they taste is that yellow stuff.”

One of the only pops of color in the exhibit comes from the red and white stripes of an American flag shoved into the largest of these jars and saturated in the sulfur inside. This works to symbolize the limited freedom and rights that farm workers in an idealized America, Cartagena said.

“‘Yeah, you are under our flag and under our country, but under these conditions,’” Cartagena said.

Sugar Face, 2017

Photo by Justin Tahara Victor Cartegena’s exhibit includes 12 molds of the face of Maurillo Maravilla, a man who harvested Salinas sugar beets alongside César Chávez. Beet sugar is poured over the molds and deteriorates the form as the exhibit continues.

Though this exhibit was not completely set up when City on a Hill Press reviewed, Cartagena provided insight to its significance. 

Twelve molds of the same face, like the 12 place settings in “La Santa Cena,” align one of the walls of the exhibit. The molds are of 103-year-old farm worker Maurilio Maravilla, who Cartagena found through the United Farm Workers. Maravilla worked in Salinas sugar beet fields alongside César Chávez. After speaking to him, Cartagena wanted to include his face and story to represent the hardships and back-breaking work farm workers endure.

“In [Maravilla’s] early years, in order to be able to work long hours in the field — we’re not talking about seven hours, more like 15-17 hours in the field — the only way they could gain energy to keep going was by chewing sugar cane. That was something that really touched me. […] The sugar cane was the inspiration for sugar faces.”

As part of the exhibit, beet sugar is poured over the facial molds and the runoff streaming down the white museum walls, with the faces deteriorating as the exhibit continues.

Labor Tea, 2015

Photo by Justin Tahara
The exhibit “We Feed You” at the MAH explores the lives of farm workers and labor activists through photography and found objects. Each tea bag in the tower features a photo of worker. A wall of plates symbolizes the food we eat and where it comes from. The plates are printed with responses to the question “Who feeds you?” including “My family, planet earth and the people who love you.”

In the lobby before the exhibit, “Labor Tea” stands 10 feet tall, a cascade of aging tea bags. Within each bag is the portrait of an individual who fled El Salvador during the 1970-80 Civil War. The name “Labor Tea” is a play on “Liberty,” Cartagena said.

It is a satirical piece — not for attendees, but for the community that is featured within, speaking to the immigrant culture to joke about its struggle, Cartagena said.

“I say ‘labor tea’ to recognize, understand and accept that we as immigrants are like the tea bags,” Cartagena said. “They use us, they suck as much as they can from us and when we don’t have any more and we cannot produce any more, they throw us away.”

Knowledge that each tea bag is filled with the face of a unique found passport photo leaves you marveling at the amount of people included — well over a thousand. It forces you to wonder how many more of these photographs exist and how many of their owners are left uncovered.

Photo by Justin Tahara
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Chloe Reynolds is co-editor in chief at City on a Hill Press and an award winning student journalist. Beginning her career as a campus reporter, she found a passion for reporting on issues affecting communities of color on campus and in Santa Cruz. She was then promoted to be the Arts & Culture editor, which she changed from the Arts & Entertainment desk in order to effectively report on the struggles and successes of people of color. In her storyfinding she challenges the culture of what is classically considered “newsworthy”, looking for stories that are underreported and undervalued. She enjoys learning, unlearning and keeping her coily hair adequately moisturized.