When you bite into a ripe tomato, have you ever wondered where it came from? That tomato on your kitchen table has most likely traveled all the way from California’s Central Valley, plucked from the vine by the hands of a migrant farmer. This is the valley where painter and printmaker Michele Ramirez and her family have called home for at least three generations. “I have flashbacks every time I smell a ripe tomato,” says Ramirez, who spent a summer with her uncle harvesting tomatoes. “A really good tomato has this really earthy, beautiful smell. I smell it and boom, I’m back in the fields for just that nanosecond.”
The Central Valley has long captivated the imagination of artists and novelists for whom the beauty of its topography, with expansive pale skies and farmhouses speckling the horizon, has proven irresistible. For Ramirez, the Central Valley is both a beautiful and “distant, unknowable place” whose solitude she captures eloquently in her paintings. “You have this beautiful landscape [with] nobody in it… this giant sky and this slate horizon and all these grids.” Part of the appeal for Ramirez is the emptiness of the Central Valley, along with its blunt geometry, created by the rows and fields of its massive farms.
Yet the Central Valley isn’t as empty as Ramirez’s landscapes would lead one to believe. In Ramirez’s paintings one senses something barely visible on the horizon. “You drive across the valley and you see these monstrous fields, and then you see these little specks out there… what is that? Well, these are the people that are picking lettuce and tomatoes and peppers,” Ramirez says, describing the fieldworkers who inspired her black-and-white prints, which she stamped from carvings she cut from linoleum and wood. In contrast to her macroscopic landscapes, her up-close-and-personal prints represent a different kind of beauty: “The black and white to me is stark and it’s graphic… it’s in your face, and there’s not a lot of subtlety to it. The reality is it’s there – it’s simple.”
A great deal of history has gone into the making of Ramirez’s paintings and prints. “My family background is the basis of everything I do,” she says, recalling her grandfather who first came to the Central Valley during World War II, settling in the “tiny little farming community” of Le Grand, California. Like many other Mexican Americans, Ramirez grandfather was a bracero, which means “one who works with his arms.” Because much of the U.S. labor force was depleted during the war, Central Valley fields were left untended and the country faced possible food shortages. To fill the gap left behind by those who went to war, Mexican braceros were recruited to work the fields, becoming an often unrecognized labor force that kept the country going and put food on the table’s of millions of Americans. Labor conditions were harsh and wages low, resulting in strikes and an accompanying labor movement in the decades after the war.
Ramirez’s grandfather eventually opened his own business in Le Grand and started a family. Life was hard for the Ramirez family. “My dad and his family, they were really poor growing up,” Ramirez recalls, “my grandmother survived the Depression basically in a cardboard shack.” Yet the family’s hard work paid off, enabling Ramirez to attend college and later graduate school.
Today Ramirez remains grateful for the hard work wrought by her parents and grandparents. “Everybody works really hard and they get their hands dirty every day and here I am making paintings and prints. I got all the benefits and they did all the hard work. It’s an amazing thing to be able to do what I do,” Ramirez says, “I’m always thinking of ways of paying them back by doing the best art that I can.”
Contemporary Mexican American workers, many of them undocumented, continue to tend the fields of the Central Valley. As Ramirez points out, many young workers join the armed services in the hope of gaining citizenship, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet they face increasingly harsh criticism from U.S. citizens who feel they are taking U.S. jobs. Inspired by the political and subversive tradition of printmaking, Ramirez captures these events in We Defend, We Harvest, We Work!, in which she juxtaposes a pastoral image of fieldworkers with a panel depicting the same men in military uniforms, brandishing assault rifles. Ramirez says the print was a reaction to “the anti-immigrant backlash you hear a lot of times” on talk radio and “the horrible generalization that if you’re here illegally you just need to go.”
The driving force behind We Defend and Ramirez’s other works is often a yearning for visibility. The artist hopes those who view her work will stop objectifying the fieldworker as “an illegal immigrant, an illegal” and instead “see them for who they are.” As Ramirez puts it, “These are the people who are putting food on your table and you’ve got to look at them. They’re doing something that nobody in their right mind would want to do because the work is hard, it’s hot, and it’s backbreaking.”
Ramirez’s goal is to highlight the worker’s humanity, and to draw out the viewer’s sense of his own humanity and capacity for empathy. Ramirez captures this humanity through the movement of worker’s body – “it’s all about gesture, the body and paying attention,” she says. It’s as if each life has its own texture, a texture that expresses a longing for and celebration of life. “It all comes down to the basic humanity of the person and the dignity in which they conduct themselves,” Ramirez says, “I was able to see it up close.”
Annie Pentilla has an MFA and BA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. She co-edits Highway 101 Press (highway101press.com) and interns at Tikkun. Her work has appeared in Improv 2009: Anthology of Colorado Poets and Read This.