Home / Blog / A New Program & Exhibit in East Oakland Shares Powerful Day Laborer Stories and Central American History
A group of day laborers, participants in the Peralta Hacienda Historic Park project Undocumented Hearts, work on quilts depicting their migration journeys to the United States. Photo: Jeff Norman

A New Program & Exhibit in East Oakland Shares Powerful Day Laborer Stories and Central American History

In a quiet part of the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland, California, sits Peralta Hacienda Historical Park. The site of the first non-Indian dwelling in the area, the land once held a cattle ranch owned by the Peraltas, a family who colonized and settled on thousands of acres of land in what is now known as the East Bay to entrench Spain’s claim to Alta California in the 1700s. The site is now home to a public park, and the former family farmhouse from 1870 now hosts a museum with temporary as well as permanent exhibits about the Californios and the Peralta family. It’s a fascinating and complex setting to host an exhibit like Undocumented Heart: Oakland Day Laborers Tell Their Stories.

The exhibit is supported by a Humanities for All Quick Grant and is part of a separate and ongoing multi-year project, was created to “expose abuses and shine light on systems that create the need for day laborers yet lock them in an untenable dependency and vulnerability.” An unapologetic look at the role of US policy in creating crises in Central American countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as Mexico, the exhibit pairs a historic timeline of these events with personal photos, writing, and artwork by the participants—day laborers, or jornaleros, in the local community.

Peralta Hacienda Historic House, the site of the exhibition.

Textile artist Marion Coleman, painter Ramon Carrillo, and graphic designer Jeff Norman led workshops with the day laborers, and Victor Moreno, a former day laborer himself who is now a docent at the Park, was an invaluable cultural advisor who helped recruit participants. Each day laborer was paid as an artist, and Coleman, Carrillo, and Norman created their own artworks expressing the project’s themes. The project also included storytelling and community dialogue events as well as performances by the participants, who are forming their own street theater group.

We visited the exhibit, supported by a Humanities for All Quick Grant, and spoke to curator Holly Alonso to learn what insights the project revealed about the experiences of migration faced by jornaleros in Oakland.

California Humanities: Tell us about some of the works of art created through the collaboration of quilter Marion Coleman, community artist Ramon Carrillo and program participants? 

Holly Alonso: Marion Coleman’s quilt places silhouettes of men and women working at construction,

gardening, housework and child care over a vibrant green and gold background, onto which she stitched a subtle pattern of thematic words. In her written meditation on the work, she connects the Latino day laborers to the history of her own heritage: In the South, African Americans waited on street corners to be hired, and experienced the same kinds of abuses and insecurity as day laborers in Oakland today.

Ramon Carrillo painted four acrylic canvases to reflect the sequence of a day laborer’s life: Leaving beloved culture and family at home; going forth on a dangerous, even fatal, journey; arriving in the U.S. with its fast pace, worship of the almighty dollar, and racism expressed openly even at the highest levels of government; and finally, struggling to resist despair and finding solace in honesty and the work ethic.

He also painted a triptych called Indocumentado (Undocumented) to represent what it feels like to be here without the legal right to work. At the center is a bowed female figure chained at the wrists, with day laborers’ words and symbolic images added on the side panels.

Curator Holly Alonso and cultural advisor Victor Moreno with his dog Macario, in front of the quilt by Marion Coleman.

The journey dominates many of the day laborers’ quilts and paintings, from the beauty of the desert to the horrors of seeing your companions die there, to La Bestia—the Beast or Train of Death, that one of the participants rode from Guatemala to the U.S., clinging to the outside of the train, tied on so that he wouldn’t fall to his death if he fell asleep.

Other works show the agony of separation through images of the parents, children and grandchildren many day laborers haven’t been able to visit for decades. Their children grow up without them and have children of their own, whom they have never met; their parents die without them. In one quilt the artist exults, singing and rising on a path of spiritual enlightenment. Adriana Martinez’ dual identity divides her lively canvas with Mexican food, indigenous animals like the scorpion, symbols of her Catholic faith and many other motifs on one side, and symbols of the American way of life on the other. As she says in the caption, “Hamburgers and tacos are both part of my identity.” The captions, written by the day laborers, illuminate their art.

Inside the exhibit there are portraits of the participants, as well as original paintings and quilts, each depicting their experiences.

CH: Describe some of the cultural assets brought by jornaleros to the Bay Area? 

HA: The cultural assets that the jornaleros bring are almost endless: Jornaleros bring their holidays, such as Three King’s Day (Día de Reyes), Cinco de Mayo and Dia de los Muertos. These traditional holiday customs are enriching all our lives in the Bay Area. They bring languages to the Bay Area, such as the Spanish language, which enlarges the US lexicon, and indigenous languages such as Mam, a Mayan language of Guatemala. Francisco Pablo, one of the storytellers, is a Mam speaker. There are 15,000 Mam speakers in Oakland, and many thousands are from Francisco’s town of Todos Santos. To hear Mam, or Quiché, another indigenous language spoken by many in Oakland, is a treat for the ears. Jornaleros also bring their music: Marimba groups gather in Oakland every weekend to play; Francisco says the marimba is central to Mam identity. A marimba will play at one of the events connected to the Undocumented Heart exhibit this spring. The musical cornucopia from jornaleros overflows: ranchera music, mariachis, salsa, cumbia, punta, and many other Mexican and Central American song and dance forms that enliven in the Bay Area.

An outstanding contribution of the jornaleros and other Latino immigrants is in the area of food culture. This needs little explaining because traditional foods from Mexico and Central America are so integrated into Bay Area cuisine. Markets in Fruitvale are like exhibits of food culture, with special fruits, vegetables, cuts of meat, a spectacular variety of pan dulce (Mexican and Central America pastries), beer, aguas frescas (juice made from fresh fruit) and more.

Artwork based on the stories of Undocumented Heart participants, by Ramon Carrillo.

Jornaleros and other Latinos also bring amazing traditional visual arts to the Bay Area, especially textiles, weaving, knitting and embroidery. Francisco Pablo wears his beautiful embroidered shirts every day. Maria Trinidad Santiago, one of the jornaleras in the exhibit, brings not only her skills in textile arts, but also knowledge of traditional healing arts and medicines. All the jornaleros bring their storytelling talents.

Another asset which is part of the jornalero culture is their work ethic. This is at the core of their identity. They know how to make things, do things, and how to learn new skills quickly. They offer these skills and talents in their work as jornaleros every day.

CH: How have the community dialogues organized as part of this program brought new awareness to the economic, political, and environmental factors driving migration?  

HA: Each community dialogue dealt with a theme the day laborers proposed: “The Journey,” “A Feeling of Exile” and “What Is Causing the Crisis?” Each panel featured scholars in dialogue with the day laborers and the public. The dialogue shed light on the conflicted history of the US, Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle, as the countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are known. Day laborers from all those countries spoke as panelists, saying they wanted to tell “the truth about our history.”

An exterior view of the timeline and participant narratives in the Peralta Hacienda Historical Park.

The dialogues shed light on the big downbeats in US policy that increasingly militarized the border, forcing those migrating into a narrower and narrower and more dangerous desert corridors and the roots of that policy.

Scholars Alex Saragoza, Linda Ivey and others highlighted the broader rhythms of this history: Mexicans have been blamed for economic downturns in the US, starting with The Great Depression, during which over 500,000 Mexican Americans were deported on trains, many of them full citizens. Yet, the irony was that before this, during WWI, and after, during WWII, millions of Mexicans were recruited to work in the US seasonally to answer the US labor shortage, as part of large federal programs. The latter, the Bracero program, lasted 22 years!

This benefitted US landowners in that they could keep a subservient labor force with low pay and not be responsible for the quality of their housing, access to health care or sanitation, and then send them back to Mexico. However, many braceros stayed, brought their families and became part of communities throughout the US. Millions of these families got “amnesty,” aka “legal status” or “papers,” as part of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1992—but IRCA also clamped down on further immigration. After this, the US increased militarization of the Mexican border, even though the demand for labor continued.

Discussion in the last dialogue analyzed how US policy benefitted authoritarian governments in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador from the very beginning of the 20th century. This resulted in in US corporations like the United Fruit Company profiting. the profits. It also destroyed movements towards economic equity and democracy and used brutal methods to keep the vast majority of people in extreme poverty, which made them available as cheap labor. Francisco Pablo, one of the day laborers from Guatemala, told how his village was burned during the Mayan genocide in the 1980s, how he fled to a refugee camp in Mexico and how he finally was granted asylum in 1992. Daniel Alfaro told how he became an orphan during the US-involved civil war in El Salvador and was raised by his 11-year old aunt. She joined him at one of the dialogues; together they told their story. Today’s legacy of the notorious “banana republics” is that they are among the most violent countries in the world by UN indices, with weak governments, widespread corruption and street violence, driving people to flee.

A close-up of one of the banners in the exterior part of the Undocumented Heart exhibit.

CH: What’s next for the oral histories recorded through this program, and how can we access these stories?  

HA: The exhibit, Undocumented Heart: Oakland Day Laborers Tell Their Stories, which contains all the oral histories, is now showing at Peralta Hacienda on Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 to 5:30 pm (or can also be shown to groups by appointment at other times). The address of the site and museum is 2465 34th Avenue, Oakland, 94601, phone 510-532-9142 or go to peraltahacienda.org.

The stories and art of the day laborers, and art works by Marion Coleman and Ramon Carrillo are on display both indoors in the Peralta House Museum of History and Community, and outdoors on 20 eight-by-ten-foot panels in the park’s Historic Core. Graphic artist Jeff Norman designed the outdoor panels and indoor exhibition. StoryCorps and Chris Hambrick of KALW recorded their interviews. I was the exhibit curator, working with our partnering community organization, the Street Level Health Project and the Oakland Workers Collective and fourteen day laborers, and working closely with Victor Moreno, cultural adviser to the project and Fruitvale community member.

A website with all the stories and other exhibit elements will be launched on February 2, 2019, Tamale Day. This event follows up on our Three King’s Day celebration to be held January 5. On both days you can tour and share in traditional celebrations of Latin America:

January 5 features the special Three King’s Day cake called Rosca de Reyes and hot chocolate, traditional in Latin America for the feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night, a big day for gift-giving. Inside the Rosca de Reyes cake, a tiny figure of a baby is always baked. We will also have lots of participatory art projects led by project artists.

February 2 is the day when the person who gets the piece of cake with the baby inside is obligated to bring tamales for all: another party! We invite you to come to both!

In addition, the day laborers are forming a street theater. They performed for the exhibit opening on October 6, 2018 and will be starting rehearsals in January to create a performance with other community groups to debut on October 5, 2019. Stay tuned for more information on the Theater of the Undocumented Heart. Watch a video of the pilot performance at https://youtu.be/MFSX_J2X8Nw and learn more about the project.

The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect those of California Humanities, its staff, Board of Directors or other affiliated parties.

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