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Bringing the challenges of migrant farmworkers into focus

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Photo submitted Paonia residents Celia Roberts, left, and Elaine Brett attended the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association biannual conference near Washington, D.C., in February. Roberts, a professional photographer, took "Gracias por la Vid

Since 1992, photographer Celia Roberts has crisscrossed Colorado and the country documenting the nation's migrant and seasonal farmworkers. As a result, her life has taken on new meaning.

While the debate over immigration policy rages on, Roberts expresses gratitude for all that these workers do to put food on our tables. People don't realize that many of the farmworkers are U.S. citizens, said Roberts, some whose families have been in this country for many generations.

In February, "Gracias por la Vida," an exhibit of 40 black and white images of migrant families, was purchased by the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association (NMSHSA) during its biannual conference in Washington, D.C. Roberts hopes that it will be widely viewed and offer insight into the lives of those who care for and harvest our nation's food.

Since 1965, Head Start has provided early learning programs for children of low-income families through collaboration and coordination of services. National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start provides those same services for migrant families, with a focus on families with young children who are constantly pulling up roots to follow the work. NMSHS provides stability so children can receive an early education, said Roberts, calling it one of the greatest organizations of our time. "Without this program they are unlikely to get an early start before first grade and this would likely have a negative impact on the rest of their lives."

Paonia resident Elaine Brett accompanied Roberts to Washington. In this area, said Brett, Roberts is known for her landscape and nature photography; but in D.C., where Brett lived for 35 years, she's known for her work with the NMSHS. "She was like a rock star," said Brett. Even at the airport, people were greeting her with open arms.

Roberts' photos capture the emotion, hard work and plight of her subjects, said Brett. Convention-goers, the majority of whom were Hispanics who grew up in the fields, shared their stories and thanked her for the exhibit. They were so honored to meet her, said Brett. "Some people came up to her with tears in their eyes." One woman shared that she picked strawberries as a child and that the photos reminded her of her sister and father.

People also shared how NMSHS and its teachers changed their lives, including one man who had completed an internship at the White House through the program and is now one of its leaders.

Roberts has created an extensive account of farmworkers and their families over the past two decades. It began in 1992 after she accepted an offer to do a study in black and white images of migrant workers in Colorado. She said she was not only interested, "I'm the one to do it." Since then Celia has toured the country, and shot some 500 rolls of film, recording the farmworker culture in between attending art fairs, where she sold her nature and travel photography.

When approaching workers in the field she was always accompanied by someone they knew and always asked for permission to photograph them. "I would love to say I returned the favor by sending them copies of these pictures," said Roberts. "But they were always moving on."

Before she began her photographic journey, "Just like so many of us, I paid not one lick of attention to where our food was coming from," said Roberts. She now sees how the U.S farmworker lacks many of the basic rights and labor protections granted to other workers, and the toll the harsh lifestyle takes on them. "They are not even guaranteed a minimum wage."

Witnessing their grinding treatment and living conditions has been painful, she said. "The worst part is the breaking up of communities back home when they come here hoping to find work in order to provide for their families."

While politicians urge deportation and the building of walls, "In my view, it's totally counter to what needs to happen," said Roberts. "These workers deserve our respect, doing the work that others don't want to do or can't do."

Following the recession in 2008, said Roberts, tightened immigration regulations resulted in some 40 percent or more of harvests going to waste, including in Delta County. "We need them and they need us," she said. "It's not a convenience that they're here, it's a necessity that they're here. And they need the work. They want to be able to take care of the financial struggles that their families face back home. In truth, their families are our neighbors to the south. Would you let your neighbors starve?"

With respect to immigration, Roberts adds, "If there was the commitment to cooperate in finding a solution to this issue and if we included those most affected in the conversation, the workers themselves, I'm convinced a solution can be found. Unfortunately, it's become this huge political issue while they've been left out of the process of seeking answers that work for everyone."

Roberts has been active in the local arts community for more than two decades. In 1994 she helped start the Blue Sage Center for the Arts, and currently serves on its board of directors. Her images of the natural world are featured at the Rejks Family Gallery in Crested Butte and Redstone Art Gallery in Redstone, and her photos and note cards are available at several Delta County locations.

From 2000-2013, Roberts published a set of bilingual wall calendars called the "Gracias" series, each focusing on various aspects of migrant life while calling awareness of their culture to the general public. In 2006 she was a recipient of the Plate of Bounty Award from the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association for making a difference in the lives of migrant and seasonal farmworker children and their families. She also received a national Migrant Education Harvest of Hope Award in 2010 for her contribution to the farmworker community.

Her portfolio includes photos taken for Habitat for Humanity in Bolivia and Ecuador, UNICEF and Breakthrough Foundation in India and Sri Lanka, the Foundation for International Community Assistance in Costa Rica, Pastors for Peace in El Salvador, and on her independent travels in Mexico and the U.S.

Celia is now working on a book that she has carried around in her mind the past two years. She wants it to illustrate how her relationships with farmworkers and their families, and their welcoming nature, have enriched her life. "Their labor helps give us food security," said Roberts. "Without them we cannot live the life we do. Knowing this has changed my life. To me they walk their talk. They have a very strong work ethic and are really committed to their families and want what's best for their children. I found my heart when I found these people. I'm hoping this book will touch other people's hearts as well."

Roberts envisions the photos in "Gracias por la Vida" being exhibited in a prominent place where they will be frequently viewed. She wants viewers to shed preconceived notions and learn about this rich culture. "I truly believe that if we just take time to say thank you for our food and the hands that harvested it, there would be a shift in consciousness in this country. It will make a difference."

Photo by Celia Roberts An image at a fruit stand near McAllen, Texas, serves as a reminder that the last hand to touch the food we buy could easily be the hand that harvested it.
Photo by Celia Roberts This image from Celia Roberts’ “Gracias por las Manos” calendar is of a young boy and his grandfather near Marana, Ariz. The boy’s parents had been recently deported due to their undocumented status, and left him to be raised by his grandparents.
Photo by Celia Roberts Harvesting a field of strawberries in Tennessee exemplifies the physical challenges involved in stoop labor. Agriculture is among the country’s most dangerous industries. The average life expectancy of a male farmworker is about 20 years less than that of the average U.S. male citizen.
Photo by Celia Roberts Harvesting huge crops like this overwhelmingly large cabbage crop located in Colorado’s San Luis Valley is repeated in thousands of fields across the U.S. every year. Many people have no idea of the magnitude of work it takes to feed the population, says Roberts, and how some 40 percent of harvests go to waste, much of it due to a lack of workers.
Photo by Celia Roberts The pride expressed by this graduate’s father and her classmates indicates the commitment it took her to graduate from Olathe High School, given that when she arrived four years earlier she spoke only Spanish.
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