For many people in the United States there is a disconnect between how our food is produced and from those that power our food system. Artist Narsiso Martinez is intimately familiar with both. Martinez was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, and came to the United States when he was 20 years old. As a child, he would help his father in the fields. He completed high school in 2006 at the age of 29. To fund his undergraduate studies and MFA in drawing and painting from California State University, Long Beach, Martinez returned to the fields in Washington State, where he picked fruits and vegetables, specifically apples, asparagus, and cherries.
Martinez understands the system and how broken it is. His work, which references this labor system and its inequities, is a contemporary iteration of social realism, critiquing power structures and conditions of the undocumented working class. He knows that the people who labor to fill produce sections and restaurant kitchens around the country are often far from the mind of the consumer, and his artistic practice brings those disconnects back to the fore.
Martinez draws figurative images of farmworkers grouped into two-person teams onto discarded produce boxes and canvases using charcoal, acrylic paint, and ink wash. Some of his works depict individuals he knows in the field, while others are inspired by photographs he takes, then referenced, in part, in his works. His collages and sculptures juxtapose the farmworker next to the corporate label of the cardboard box, forcing the viewer to draw complex connections between peoples and goods, and to visualize the usually unseen power and connections of agribusiness. The artist is brand agnostic. For Martinez, the logotypes abstractly signal the global corporate imaginary. By picturing the farmworkers as he does, by insisting on the visibility of their work, he humanizes and imagines the farmworkers who are deemed essential yet, paradoxically, lack essential benefits.
Farmworkers face inhumane conditions, including extreme heat, lack of proper sanitation in the field, too few restrooms to accommodate the number of workers, and exposure to pesticides. Farmworkers do not make a living wage. Their compensation is based on how much the worker has picked. They earn by the bucket, bin, or load. Carrying these heavy bundles can cause physical ailments. Being undocumented—as the majority of the 2.4 million farmworkers in the U.S. are—many cannot express their grievances and begin to remedy these injustices. With a broken immigration system, Congress must pass the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 to support farmworker families, agricultural businesses, rural communities, and the economy.
On December 11, 2019, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019 passed the House. According to Farmworker Justice, “If enacted, the legislation would recognize the important contributions of farmworkers to our nation, enable hundreds of thousands of farmworkers and their family members to obtain a lawful immigration status, maintain important protections under the H-2A agricultural guest worker program and help provide a stable workforce for agricultural employers.”1
Martinez will continue to creatively portray and amplify the conditions of farmworkers. Many of those he has portrayed have not seen his work, but he has vinyl prints on display in Mattawa, Washington, at a community park and a local library. Martinez was invited by Ronnie de Leon and the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association to paint a utility box in Long Beach (Pacific and 9th). You can watch a short clip of the creation of Harvesters in the Cityhere.
With the recent California wildfires exacerbated by the climate crisis, with the ongoing pandemic, and with general insecurity related to the farmworkers’ legal status, these essential laborers need our support. Consider donating to the Farmworkers’ COVID-19 Pandemic Relief Fund. Additionally, contact your Senator urging him or her to support the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019.
Narsiso Martinez’s drawings and mixed media installations include multi-figure compositions set amidst agricultural landscapes. Drawn from his own experience as a farmworker, Martinez’s work focuses on the people performing the labors necessary to fill produce sections and restaurant kitchens around the country.
Narsiso Martinez came to the United States from Mexico when he was 20 years old. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from California State University Long Beach and a Master of Fine Arts degree in drawing and painting from California State University Long Beach. Martinez lives and works in Long Beach, California.
Sanaz Alesafar is a cultural strategist working within the intersection of art, culture, and film to promote narrative and social change. She is a graduate of University of California at Berkeley and received her MPA from L’Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris.