‘Taking to the Road’ exhibit gives inside look at farmworker life

Artifacts, oral history interviews and photos, like this one of Mary Montoya Hohenstein's brothers, will be part of the upcoming "Taking to the Road: The Austin Migrant Farmworkers Connection" exhibit. Photo contributed by Mary Montoya Hohenstein

Artifacts, oral history interviews and photos, like this one of Mary Montoya Hohenstein’s brothers, will be part of the upcoming “Taking to the Road: The Austin Migrant Farmworkers Connection” exhibit. Photo contributed by Mary Montoya Hohenstein

In my hometown on the Texas border, I grew accustomed to my classmates leaving the school year early or enrolling late. As seasonal migrant farmworkers, they followed the harvest to northern U.S. states with their families and worked in fields or canneries to provide the fruits and vegetables that would eventually end up on someone’s kitchen table.

Although I stayed behind and watched as they left each year, eventually my father began leaving to work in the fields, too. As a kid, places such as Michigan and Illinois seemed like a world away, but the seasonal pilgrimages my father took provided for our family. I didn’t realize it then, but the connection to the migrant farmworker life would later help shape my identity as a Mexican American woman.

I recently shared some of these experiences during an oral history interview tied to the powerful upcoming exhibit and event series “Taking to the Road: The Austin Migrant Farmworkers Connection.” The multi-layered program examines various angles of the farmworker experience and includes community and national exhibits, documentary screenings, panels and a keynote presentation, all at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center throughout July.

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The “Taking to the Road” community exhibit, which opens with a reception at 6 p.m. on July 9, shines a light on Central Texans who moved throughout the country to work as migrant farmworkers during the 1940s-70s. Pieces of their farmworker pasts will be stitched together through photos, artifacts and oral history interview clips, which will be on display through Sept. 3.

“Very little has been documented or preserved regarding Mexican Americans in farm and ranch life whether in Austin, Travis County or Central Texas much less as migrant farm workers,” said Gloria Espitia, an outreach representative at the MACC. “(The exhibit) gives a historical perspective of the roles that twelve families contributed in the area of agriculture…In some cases, some of the exhibit contributors have not told their stories to their own children or other family members. The reasoning for this is not because of the negative feelings and stigma as migrant farmworkers, but rather because they did not feel that it was an important story to tell.”

The Guzman family works in the fields of Wisconsin. Photo contributed by Gloria Guzman

The Guzman family works in the fields of Wisconsin. Photo contributed by Gloria Guzman

“Bittersweet Harvest,” a bilingual exhibit that gives a national view of the farmworker story, also opens on July 9. It explores the bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican nationals on short-term labor contracts between 1942-1964.

But what’s farmworker life like now for children? Visitors can check out the 2011 documentary “The Harvest/La Cosecha” at 3 p.m. on July 9 at the cultural center’s Black Box theater. The film follows three teenagers whose families travel from Texas to Florida and Michigan for seasonal work. A discussion will follow the film.

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Tying these experiences together will be the keynote presentation, “Taken by the Road: Migration from Montopolis to Muskegon,” from 2-4 p.m. July 23 at the cultural center’s auditorium and theater. Retired professor Raymond Padilla, will give insight into his life as the son of a bracero who then moved to Austin and traveled to work in the fields throughout the country. A panel afterward will feature Austinites highlighted in the “Taking to the Road” community exhibit.

Keep an eye out for another panel discussion from 2-3:30 p.m. on Aug. 27 at the cultural center’s auditorium featuring the St. Edward’s University College Assistance Migrant Program, which is the longest running program of its kind in the nation. CAMP students, alumni, former counselors and the current director, Esther Yacono, will share the experiences of the program, which has helped thousands of students obtain their higher education dreams.