By Carolyn Barbre
The Migrant Photography Project is no longer housed in Lindsay. To spend any time at all talking with its founder, Dr. Saundra Sturdevant, is to feel great pride at being a part of the sisterhood of women globally while getting a glimpse of the extraordinary sacrifices women have made to support their families and create a better life for their children when humanly possible.
She said in terms of her own work about women's ag, she is primarily interested in gender roles. What do the women do? What do the men do? Sturdevant said agricultural workers have "very specialized skills including planting seeds and the harvest. Ag labor the world over is paid awful wages. The women's role in India, China, the Philippines, Korea - what women do in traditional ag - is no different from that in the petrochemical Central Valley." Sturdevant refers to her photos as the "U series" because the body of woman is bent over like an inverted U while picking, planting and weeding. She said women never prune, never drive trucks.
She said around Lindsay both men and women go up the ladders, but the older women shuffle on the ground on their knees and rear ends, picking oranges. She said then they stand to get the lower third of the tree. "I've never seen men doing that." She said with grapes it is the women who put the plants in the ground and tie them up. The men bring them the plants in five-gallon buckets. She said it has nothing to do with strength. She said women could drive the fork lifts, but never do.
Sturdevant said at a local olive harvest there were two groups working with two different labor contractors. One was exclusively female and received $2 per bucket of olives. The second group was husband and wife teams which were paid $3.50 per bucket - paid to the husbands.
"How does a woman make her living working in the fields? How does she get and keep the job and do women's domestic work? She basically cooks and cleans and feeds herself last. One would think with agribusiness things would be different, but they're not." Sturdevant didn't ignore dairy, "the only stable year-round work which hires only men." She said many of them must live in housing provided by the dairy owners from which the wives have to figure out how to get to other work.
Sturdevant explained the Migrant Photography Project, "HERSTORY" encompasses three parts. The first part is recording the woman's life in Mexico by having her describe her village, her family, the local economy - what life was like.
The second part is documenting how the woman decided to immigrate, the process of making the decision. "It's extraordinarily difficult to leave one's family, the graves, the culture, to go to another country," Sturdevant noted. Then there is the crossing itself, which is very dangerous. She recalled a recent situation where a migrant woman's husband died of a heart attack although he was young, probably 38-40 years old. He was the only one in the family with papers. She said the woman was determined to take his body back to Mexico for burial. But when she wanted to get back into the U.S. she had to seek the help of a coyote, who charged $1,500, with no guarantees for her safety much less a successful crossing, but her children were back in Tulare County. "It's a hell of a lot of money - a real odyssey - Ulysses had nothing on these women," Sturdevant said.
She said the third part is life in the U.S. from why they chose to settle in Tulare County, how they negotiate health care, school, relationships. Sturdevant said the children born into the new culture grow up with different values. What is the impact on the husband and extended family? What process of transformation does the woman go through if she does?
"These are things I want to capture in the interview. Some talk, others don't lead the reflective life."
This segment of her documenting "Women's Agricultural Labor" started in 1998. She said it was Dr. Alfonso Anaya, then superintendent of Lindsay Unified School District who suggested using her photography as a tool to address the issue of illiteracy that he said was a problem for 40-50 percent of the children of migrant laborers. She described him as a man with great heart, who could see far.
"Wherever I do my work in the world, I like to give back to the community as I take from the community. People's stories are very precious." Sturdevant said her last book was on Asian labor in the central states and California. She has lived and worked in Japan, China, the Philippines. She did photography in conjunction with the labor peasant organizations in India, images she is just now posting around her gallery. In the early 1980s, she began to photograph professionally when she lived in Beijing and worked at the Foreign Languages Press, a work unit of the Chinese State.
When she started the migrant project, she initially stayed in the homes of workers in the Valley, then moved to Three Rivers from Berkeley seven years ago. She had been in Berkeley since the mid-1970s, when she left the University of Chicago to fulfill a post-doctoral position in Chinese History at U.C. Berkeley.
"When Alfonso called, I said this fits in with the community, to work with the parents of Lindsay school children." She said he was very generous. The school provided money for all the photographic materials. Sturdevant purchased used equipment from the Bay Area, much of it from the downsizing of the San Francisco Examiner. Anaya was fired not long after this arrangement went into effect. He was hired by Salinas, then San Jose. Sturdevant said the first year he was gone, she lost half of her budget and the second year she lost the rest. She does much of her work on grants.
"California Council for Arts (CAC) funded me for three years as Artist in Residence in Community. I was only one in all of Tulare County. This money, together with LUSD money when it existed, made it possible for me to create MPP and do work on Women''s Agricultural Labor Project, of which HERSTORY is now funded by California Council of the Humanities (CCH)."
CAC is funded by National Endowment for the Arts (federal monies) and State of California monies. For last two years, the California state legislature, in its wisdom, has refused to fund CAC, which Sturdevant says is, "a great loss!" However CCH is funded by National Endowment for the Humanities (federal monies) and State of California. It, fortunately, still exists.
She supports herself in part with income from her home business, Organic Gardens Bed & Breakfast which has the Garden Room and the Cottage that rent at $115 and $130 per night respectively. The breakfast part is organically grown fruits and vegetables raised by Sturdevant on the property. It is a gorgeous location and at the back door to Sequoia National Park. It is also an ideal business for someone who likes the freedom to take a chunk of time off to visit other locales.
When even the LUSD building where the Migrant Photography Project was housed failed, with a roof so leaky she had to move out, she didn't really mind. "I wanted a storefront that was more central in the community," Sturdevant said, so rented the front half of the old Gazette building on Honolulu Street in December 2003.
She then took off for Guatemala in January for an intensive study session in Spanish. Sturdevant speaks Chinese as her second language, and Japanese as her third, both of which she learned in graduate school. She said she had a little Spanish having lived in Texas in the fifth grade. "I thought with the Migrant Photography Project my Spanish would improve markedly," she said. But she found it was more about migrants wanting to try their English. She also learned Latin in the public schools of Missouri, Kansas and Ohio. Sturdevant said she attended four different high schools as a military brat. "My dad was a farm boy, a migrant laborer in the '30s, then he rode shotgun during prohibition." That was a little too iffy so he became career Air Force. She said he was shot down a couple of times, serving in WWII and Korea. She ended up graduating from Lincoln High School in Nebraska.
"I think languages are fun," she said. She said she chose Guatemala because their Spanish is very clear and has a moderate pace, compared to Mexican Spanish which is spoken rapidly with words swallowed. She spent five weeks in Antigua, Guatemala studying Spanish four to five hours a day five days a week, one on one, "very intense and very good." It is a growth Industry in Antigua, "a marvelous town with cobblestone streets." Their other industry is tourism.
She said in February she took possession of the Gazette building and rented the back half about a month later. She knew Victor Cervantes, having met him when he was at Columbia University when he went to the Migrant Photography office and did a video of her as an artist and activist. The rise and fall of the community center and Sturdevant's decision to pull the Migrant Photography Project out of Lindsay was reported in last week's Gazette.
She said she hopes to finish her California project by next January. She said several things will come out of the project. There will be forums held where some of the women will be present and people from the community will be invited to interact. She said the migrant women will be honored and their work honored. Forums will be held at the Migrant Board Office in Visalia, possibly at the Tulare County Llibrary and at Lindsay High School, as well as the Orosi self-help housing rec center.
The images will be put in galleries for exhibition, to be viewed throughout California and elsewhere. The interviews have all been taped and could be broadcast at small watt FM stations. She said some of the interviews are of United Farm Worker women in leadership and the rank and file, UFW women in their 50s and 60s. She also hopes to make CDs of the images and the stories for county libraries and schools, so students can learn the history of their mothers and grandmothers as part of the education process. And of course there will be a book, published by a university press.
As to what she will do after the California project is completed, the 67-year-old hasn't decided. But she harbors serious concerns about how America is presently being perceived. "I never felt limited options as I do now. I work in the world. Parts of the world will be closed for the remaining 20 years of my lifetime. I try to put myself in situations where I live abroad and travel from there." She thought she might possibly look into the political climate in Greece.
Sturdevant is the mother of three sons and grandmother of six.
For more information check www.ssturdevantphotography.com and www.migrantphotographyproject.org.