In response to the racist symbols displayed by the Cal Poly crops house on campus last October, the Agribusiness and Social Sciences departments plan to put on a series of diversity awareness campaigns, the first of which is called “The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers,” a photo exhibit created by Los Angeles freelance photojournalist Rick Nahmias. On display until Nov. 30 on the second floor of the library, this project documents the struggle of migrant farm workers and their families throughout California.
Last October, students living in on-campus subsidized housing for crop science students, hosted a party that displayed a noose, confederate flag and controversial signs. The exhibit was one of the many diversity events and programs instituted in response to the incident.
Next to Julian’s Patisserie on the second floor, forty black and white photos cover four walls of the library illustrating Nahmias’ 4,000-mile photographic journey to 40 migrant farm communities across the state. Next to each framed photo a caption in both English and Spanish details the struggles these communities face. A caption next to a picture of a worker’s dirt-stained, worn hands holding seven coins explains that migrant workers are given tokens in exchange for the number of buckets they fill with tomatoes. The day Nahmias took the photo the coins were worth 95 cents. A large photo of a grave stands out above the rest against one wall of the library with cross has “no olvidado,” or “not forgotten” painted across it. The caption reads that more than 4,000 migrant farm workers die crossing the border, some bodies remaining unclaimed like the body that belonged to this grave.
One photo in particular hit home with Andrew Pierce, an electrical engineering junior. Nahmias’ photo of a worker sitting in a shack pieced together by tarps and shower curtains reminded him of a companion he worked with over the summer who lived out of a garage. His friend, a 31-year-old immigrant from Mexico, sometimes worked 15-hour days.
“He’d say, ‘I’m a donkey.’ It was really sad hearing him say that,” Pierce said.
Looking at the caption of the photo, Pierce was surprised and disgusted to see that the worker was living within minutes of the multimillion-dollar community of Rancho Santa Fe.
Animal science sophomore Cecilia Nguyen was also surprised at the location of these marginalized communities.
“It’s eye-opening. It’s crazy that it’s so close,” she said.
Nahmias hoped that the project would show students that these workers “are literally in their own backyards.” When setting out to begin his project in the spring of 2002, he immersed himself in the communities, getting to know locals and having them take him around the farms so that he could take photos of their living conditions as migrant workers. Being around these poorer communities was an intense culture shock for Nahmias.
“I felt like I was reconnecting with something that was really real and really important but really outside my comfort zone,” he said.
Nahmias brought his experiences and his photos to Cal Poly through a workshop on Oct. 1, another part of this year’s diversity campaign. He and 31 other students worked on bridging the gap between the farm laboring community and the white-collared community.
“If you plant that little seed of compassion, anything’s possible,” Nahmias said.
Bringing Nahmias and his project to Cal Poly was a joint effort by social sciences assistant professor Dr. Stacey Rucas and agribusiness department chair Dr. Wayne Howard along with social science seniors Dana Clark, Alyssa Fantin, Wendy Kastner and Sonja Pearson. Together, they organized not only bringing the library’s photo exhibit and the student workshop but also fundraising for The Fund for Vineyard and Farm Workers, a migrant worker’s endowment raised by Brian and Johnine Talley of Talley Vineyards., a Central Coast winery. At the exhibit’s opening gala event on Oct. 2, $375 was raised in donations to support the Talley’s fund.
The College of Liberal Arts, the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, the social sciences department and the agribusiness department sponsored the diversity awareness campaign.