by Emily Wilson
In 1985, artist Victor Cartagena joined thousands of others fleeing El Salvador’s Civil War. He stood in line for hours at a photo studio to get a black-and-white picture taken for his passport.
Returning to his country years later, Cartagena went back to that same studio. He tried to find his photo. But the images were filed numerically, not by name, so finding his picture was hopeless. But the man running the studio gave him hundreds of the photos of Salvadorans who were never coming back for them.
Cartagena, who, for the past two decades, has made art focused on the immigrant experience, used those pictures in an installation at the San Jose Museum. It’s part of Beta Space, a series that encourages artists to experiment and collaborate with organizations in the South Bay. Cartagena chose to work with the United Farm Workers (UFW) a union that, in the mid-1960s, organized resistance to unfair agricultural labor practices. In Labor Tea, hundreds of used tea bags hang by strings from ceiling to floor. Inside each is a passport photo. As a group they offer a haunting reminder of individuals who toiled anonymously and whose contribution — putting food on American tables — is largely unacknowledged and now threatened by proposed new U.S. immigration policies aimed at cutting off the supply of such workers.
The name of the piece, says Cartagena, in his Potrero Hill studio, is meant as a joke. “It’s ironic, like the Tea Party,” he said referring to the political movement opposed to taxes and President Barack Obama. “I got tea bags from the community for a whole year – it was beautiful. People in Chicago and Los Angeles were sending me bags. I’m still collecting them.”
Cartagena’s research with United Farm Workers Foundation (UFWF) led him to the Spreckels Sugar Co. The company whose pink-and-white boxes of C&H Sugar still sit on grocery shelves all over the country, and whose controversy-tainted refinery in Crockett, marked by a neon sign that can be easily spotted from the Carquinez Bridge, owned lots of farmland in California. Through the UFWF, Cartagena met 101-year-old Maurilo Maravilla, a Mexican immigrant who worked alongside the UFW co-founder Cesar Chavez in the sugar beet fields. Maravilla told Cartagena about chewing on the raw sugar beets as he worked to keep his energy up. This story stuck with Cartagena and led to another installation in the show, Sugar Face. Twelve masks of brown sugar, made from a mold of Maravilla’s face, hang in single amber-tinged row along a wall, melting at different rates. When I visited they had started to assume the qualities of grotesques, with only broad contours of what were formerly facial features.
Soon, they will become “as invisible as the farm workers were to the Spreckels Sugar Company and its consumers,” wrote Marja van der Loo, the show’s curator in the exhibition catalog.
A story from Maravilla’s grandson, Ricardo Nuñez, led to another installation. Nunez worked harvesting artichokes and powdered sulfur was sprinkled on top of the vegetables as a pesticide. The chemical got into the workers’ hands, and the strong smell lingered, making it hard to eat since the sulfur odor overwhelmed that of their food.
“He was telling me about this, and I didn’t have any idea till I ordered the sulfur and put it on my hand,” Cartagena said. “It stayed on my hands for so long, and I was feeling like, ‘Wow, this is really heavy that they did all this work to put vegetables on the table and this smell doesn’t allow them to taste the food.’ I was trying to communicate that through my work, so people could understand and appreciate and have empathy for this community.”The result was La Senta Cena (The Last Supper): 12 plates on a long wooden table, with glass bottles of sulfur on it. Blurry pictures of farm workers on the plates show those who conducted the harvest. (In this and in Tea Labor, attentive viewers may sense affinities between Cartagena’s found photos and Christian Boltanski’s use of them in installations dedicated to forgotten people.)
The other key piece of the show is an 80-foot-long mural done in the mode of Picasso’s Guernica. Its punning title, Burrocracia (a mash-up of burro and the Spanish word for bureaucracy), is intended symbolize the chaotic, slow-moving, burdensome system that governs the lives of immigrant farmworkers. It shows the heads of donkeys joined to human bodies in various contorted states, some of them pulled by strings.
Given the demographic make-up of San Jose, now 33 percent Hispanic, it’s no surprise that the show has been a success, says Sayre Batton, the museum’s director. “We’re just a half hour from the Salinas Valley, and Cesar Chavez’s house is nine blocks from the museum.” Where the museum now stands there were once orchards irrigated by streams flowing out of the surrounding hills. Early settlers, looking down from those hills, called what lay below “Valley of the Heart’s Delight.”
Chavez and his cohorts in Delano probably didn’t see it that way. For those who blithely enjoy the fruits of their labors, Cartagena’s edition of Beta Space opens a window onto what those workers saw and felt.
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“Beta Space: Victor Cartagena” @ San Jose Museum of Art through September 24, 2017.
About the author:
Emily Wilson lives in San Francisco. She writes for a variety of outlets, including The San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily Beast, California Teacher, California Magazine, SF Weekly and Latino USA. She also teaches at City College of San Francisco.