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Slayton: Invisible Odysseys

03/12/12 7:55AM By Tom Slayton
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(Host) An exhibition of artworks created by some of the roughly 1,500 Mexicans working on Vermont dairy farms is now on display at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury. Commentator Tom Slayton - long time journalist and observer of all things Vermont - visited the show and has the following observations.

(Slayton) Anyone who doubts that the urge to make art is universal, really ought to visit the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury and see the current exhibit of artworks by Mexican farm workers in Vermont.

The exhibit, "Invisible Odysseys" features dioramas and other art made by people who, despite putting in 12- and 16-hour days of heavy physical labor, have managed to produce striking, very moving works of art.

This isn't fine art, it's folk art, and the lush, ornate Mexican style of decoration is the predominate motif. And yet perhaps for precisely that reason, the show is profoundly effective. It hits you in the gut.

The stories they tell are both shocking and inspiring. Shocking, because it's hard to realize the amount of hardship these Mexican workers have had to endure; and inspiring, because they've not only endured their hardships, but triumphed over them.

Along with the bright colors and ornate forms, the human spirit is on display here.

In "The Mirage of a Dream," an artist identified only as "Z" tells of his journey across the harsh desert of the Mexican-US borderlands, avoiding border surveillance and gunmen, and finally his arrival in Vermont, and the farm barn where he works today . A single dollar bill, borne by an angel, wings along a red-arrow path, over a strip of sandy desert, back to his home in Mexico.

And a simple heart-wrenching statement tells us why he came to work here: "Like many," he writes, "I had a dream of giving my family a little more, a plate of food, shoes to wear, schooling. But to do this, I had to be separated from them, leaving them my heart..."

Those themes - the hope of bettering their families' lives in Mexico, the danger of the desert crossing, and the farmworkers loneliness and isolation - yes, isolation here in community-minded Vermont! - echo throughout this exhibit.

Photo courtesy of B Amore
"The Sacrifice To Better Provide For My Family"
Their fear of being deported back to Mexico by the authorities is constant and all-pervasive. They're often afraid to leave the farms on which they work. A simple trip to town might result in deportation. And so, in the land of the free, they're not free.

To the credit of those Vermonters who know of their plight, informal organizations to help the Mexicans have sprung up in Addison County. Yet as this exhibit makes clear, their situation is still often dire. And this is wrong.

Because, as their art so eloquently demonstrates, they're human beings, like us. And by taking hard, dirty jobs that most Vermonters don't want, they're helping keep Vermont's vital dairy industry afloat..

There's a bill in the Vermont Senate that would create a Vermont guest farm worker program and would secure rights and recognition for the Mexican farm workers. Passing some form of it would be an act of simple human decency.

And this exhibit, by making the "Invisible Odysseys" of Vermont's Mexican farm workers visible, may help them win the public acceptance and rights they so obviously need and deserve.

Related Links

Vermont Folklife Center Invisible Odysseys Exhibit
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