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Wednesday, 14 November 2007 00:00

Faces of Neighbors: Photography exhibit focuses on the lives of local migrant workers

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By Michael Beadle

When nurse Josie Ellis set out to take pictures of Hispanic migrant families several years ago, she had no intention of creating an art exhibit. It was simply an attempt to share photographs of children with their parents who could not afford cameras and rarely had their own photos.

“I always felt bad because they didn’t have pictures,” Ellis said. “To me it was a chance to honor the families.”

While working 60 hours a week delivering health care services during the farming season in Western North Carolina, she found troubling scenes that came into the view of her disposable camera. Farms and businesses were disregarding child labor laws and health safety standards. Multiple families were living in run-down, rat-infested trailers that cost $800 a month. Malnourished children often did not have shoes and few, if any, had toys or books. Mothers had to leave their children in the sweltering heat of pick-up trucks or fields since they were unable to pay for child care.

This was not in some third-world country. It was happening right here in Western North Carolina.

Over the last seven years, Ellis, a fourth generation Jackson County native, has been working with Vecinos Inc., a program that brings free health care and advocacy to farm workers in Jackson, Macon, Swain and Transylvania counties. Vecinos means “neighbors” in Spanish, and Ellis takes this word to heart, remembering the advice of her grandmother, who would remind Ellis to welcome neighbors.

Between 2001 and 2005, Ellis took hundreds of photographs of the migrant farm workers she spent time with and showed these photos to Martin DeWitt, director of the Fine Arts Museum at Western Carolina. DeWitt, in turn, selected 40 images to frame and display as an exhibit called “Faces of Change: Migrant Workers in Western North Carolina.” The exhibit is up through Dec. 1.

“The museum serves as a forum for dialogue and exchange of ideas,” DeWitt said, “especially as it impacts our local and regional communities. I am personally taken by these images. From a photojournalism perspective, they are what they are — direct and intimate — and offer a powerful visual statement.”


Cheap Labor

Ellis’ 9-inch by 12-inch photos tell a moving story of poverty, struggle and hope.

Though Ellis is quick to acknowledge her lack of expertise in taking photos, the grainy, color images capture a personal view of what life is like for migrant workers and their families. There are photos of children helping adults harvest tomatoes, workers in the fields, trailers with little or no furniture, and mattresses with no sheets or blankets.

All the fields photographed in the exhibit no longer have child labor, Ellis said. Vecinos went to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction’s Migrant Education Program and the federal Department of Labor to report these illegal practices.

“And they put a stop to it because it’s wrong,” Ellis said.

According to the N.C. Department of Labor, children under the age of 14 are not allowed to work in farming or agricultural jobs, and children under the age of 18 are not allowed to work in hazardous occupations such as construction (including roofing) or jobs that require the use of cutting or heavy-duty machines.

And yet child labor law violations and other illegal practices continue, Ellis explained, listing such local professions as laundry services, housekeeping, construction and landscaping that hire migrant workers.

“And people know about it — they just don’t do anything,” Ellis said.

When growers are confronted about it, they say they use subcontractors and aren’t aware of hiring child labor.

Children are especially vulnerable, Ellis said, and farming can be a very dangerous profession. For example, children’s skin is thinner than an adult’s, so it absorbs toxins and chemicals easier. These same chemicals increase the likelihood of birth defects and cancers.

Another danger is excessive exposure to the sun, which can lead to a condition known as ptyrgium, in which the eye develops a growth. If untreated, it could lead to blindness.

Meager access to health care can mean untreated chronic conditions, such as asthma and diabetes, as well. Living in poverty without basic staples of food, children become malnourished. Infant rashes become more prevalent when mothers can’t afford to pay for diapers.

“They’re the poorest of the working poor in America,” Ellis said.

That’s where Vecinos comes in — delivering free medicines, diapers and vitamins, conducting free health clinics with a medical van, and bringing to children food, clothes, books and toys.

Migrant workers are on the move looking for work, so it can be difficult keeping up with their health care history. Workers might be in Jackson County from mid-July to October harvesting one crop, relocate to Florida for the citrus crop, and then continue on to Georgia to work in peach orchards.

Ellis’ photographs show migrant workers in tomato and tobacco fields, working with soil-stained clothes, handling the produce that will make its way to kitchens across the country. But these photos show there’s a price being paid for the ingredients that wind up in fast food tacos and apple pies. Cheap food means cheap labor.

The average life expectancy for a migrant worker in the United States is 47 years old, according to Ellis.

“That’s why we started the program,” she said. “That life expectancy is unacceptable in the wealthiest nation in the world.”

One of her photographs in the exhibit shows a migrant worker spraying pesticides without any protective gloves or a facemask. Other photos highlight the desperate need for daycare among migrant workers. For a mother who makes $800 a month when the cost of daycare is $600 a month, there’s really no choice about how to spend the money. She has to take her daughter to the fields. This sets up dangerous conditions for the children.

Looking at one photo of a little girl crawling alone among tomato plants, Ellis recalls the day when she was driving through the dirt path of a field and almost hit the girl who was hidden in the waist-high grass.

“I came within feet of hitting her,” Ellis said. “If you don’t have daycare and you’re in the fields, what do you do?”


Free Trade, Lost Land

Some people blame the parents for creating this situation of unsupervised children, for having children they can’t afford or for sapping local social services budgets, but Ellis points out that it’s easy to blame the victims when you don’t have all the information.

What many don’t understand, Ellis explained, is that with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, also known as NAFTA, many Mexicans lost their land and were forced to become migrants. When NAFTA went into effect beginning in 1994, many U.S. manufacturing companies decided to relocate to Mexico where they could hire cheap labor and get away with lax environmental regulations to produce cheaper products. This not only left hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers without jobs, but many poor Mexican farmers lost their means of sustaining their families when the factories were built.

Before NAFTA, the Mexican government had set up ejidos, or collective farms, that protected a community from losing its land, but these farms were later broken up and sold off by the Mexican government, and the farmers had no written deeds to their land. In addition, cross-border trade restrictions were lifted, and the U.S. flooded Mexican markets with cheaper corn, putting thousands of Latino farmers out of business. Approximately 15 million Mexicans had jobs tied to the corn industry. Reports from human rights groups and journalists have estimated that many of these millions lost jobs and land because of the policies and business deals enacted after NAFTA.

“Look what we did to their country,” Ellis said. “We have a great deal of culpability in creating this situation.”

So it bothers Ellis when she hears people say that Mexicans must like living crowded together in small trailers. It’s not by choice, she says. Thirteen people live in a trailer because they can’t afford better, not because they want to live that way. In dirty, cramped trailers without screens where some sleep on the floor, it’s no surprise that nurses like Ellis treat patients for asthma.

If these migrant workers were smuggled across the border from Mexico into the United States, chances are they had to pay a few thousand dollars to a coyote, or guide, who got them into the United States. But migrant workers with illegal status can’t get access to social or health care services if they don’t have documentation, Ellis explained. What is more, under this arrangement, business owners who illegally hire undocumented workers threaten to fire them if they don’t do as they’re told, so they risk losing their jobs if they take time off from work for a doctor’s appointment.

In her outreach work, Ellis has received plenty of angry phone calls and notes from local business owners and growers who use migrant workers. The owners claim that Vecinos must seek permission before delivering health care services to their workers. “This is a completely unethical and illegal demand with which our program refuses to comply”, says Ellis. A doctor’s office wouldn’t ask for permission from a business before meeting with a patient for a routine check-up, so why should migrant workers be hindered from receiving free medical care?

What some business owners might be afraid of is that Vecinos also provides advice and advocacy to make sure migrant workers are being treated humanely under the protections of the law. Vecinos delivers health clinics in migrant workers’ homes three to four nights a week and on Sundays from about 7 p.m. to midnight or as long as the doctor has patients. Services have to be provided at night because during the farming season, the workers are working all day.

It’s not just Vecinos delivering outreach services. There are others willing to help, Ellis said. Some Western Carolina University students brought safety glasses to migrant workers to help protect their eyes. Father Shawn O’Neal, a priest at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Bryson City, offers baptisms, confirmations and funeral services for migrant families. In addition, he makes regular visits to migrant worker camps just to talk and help them feel welcome in the community. First Baptist Church of Sylva held a dinner welcoming migrant families. Cullowhee United Methodist Church provides food, medicines, and hygiene supplies for migrant families, as well as offering donated office space to Vecinos.

The children in these families realize they are outside the social network, Ellis said, so it’s helpful to make them feel accepted like neighbors.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” Ellis said.

Migrant families are in need of a number of items including shoes, clothes, hygiene supplies such as soap and toothpaste, diapers, vitamins, toys and books. For more information about the Vecinos Farm Workers Health Program, call 828.399.1309. Vecinos’ office is located at the Cullowhee United Methodist Church.

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