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The Migrant Project at Cal Poly: Exhibit chronicles the unnoticed

Landscape architecture lecturer Louise Schiller reads the newspapers surrounded by Rick Nahmias' "The Migrant Project" which is showing on the second floor of Cal Poly's Robert E. Kennedy Library.
Photo by Joe Johnston 10-13-09
Landscape architecture lecturer Louise Schiller reads the newspapers surrounded by Rick Nahmias' "The Migrant Project" which is showing on the second floor of Cal Poly's Robert E. Kennedy Library. Photo by Joe Johnston 10-13-09 Tribune

The worn-looking countenance of a Salinas woman whose husband died of AIDS and her story of struggle as she raises four children while working in the fields, battling the disease herself, is highlighted in a photo exhibit now at Cal Poly.

Los Angeles-based photographer Rick Nahmias’ exhibit, The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers, focuses on people who go relatively unnoticed.

California’s 1.1 million farmworkers play a key role in generating $32 billion in annual revenue for the state, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, making agriculture its leading industry, Nahmias said.

The images and captions tell tales of perseverance and resilience amid poverty and grueling work conditions in 40 California towns, including Santa Maria and Guadalupe.

“This virtually invisible underclass — whose days begin in darkness and involve unending hours of stooped labor under the blinding sun for wages rarely amounting to more than $10,000 a year — quite literally feeds our country,” Nahmias wrote about the project.

One of Nahmias’ photos depicts the leathery hands of a man in Stockton holding his “tomato tokens,” worth 95 cents for every pair of large buckets he fills after laborious picking.

Yet another depicts laughing children in Cutler, a Tulare County town, bathing in an irrigation channel — unaware of the possible risks of exposure to pesticides. Many field workers become sick in various, often serious ways, because of their contact with pesticides, according to Nahmias.

Cal Poly faculty and students helped coordinate the free exhibit — which runs through Nov. 30 on the second floor of Robert E. Kennedy Library.

“I think it opens people’s eyes, and when you drive by fields and see the workers, you have a greater appreciation for what they do,” said Cal Poly social science major Wendy Kastner.

Cal Poly assistant anthropology professor Stacey Rucas said the project celebrates diversity as the campus nears the one-year anniversary of an ugly incident of intolerance.

Rucas was among the many faculty and students who participated in a protest denouncing the Crops House incident, in which six students eventually moved out of a university-owned home because of a display there of a Confederate flag and noose, as well as an alleged display of a racist and anti-gay sign.

“We’re trying to do one big thing each year to celebrate diversity and encourage greater awareness,” Rucas said.

Rucas collaborated with social science students Sonja Pearson, Dana Clark, Alyssa Fantin and Kastner to coordinate events in conjunction with the exhibit.

Their work has included a workshop with the photographer, an opening reception for the exhibit and fundraisers for a local farmworkers’ fund coordinated by Talley Vineyards in Arroyo Grande.

Talley’s Fund for Vineyard and Farmworkers strives to raise $100,000 each year to award grants to assist organizations that help agriculture workers throughout San Luis Obispo County.

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