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Newspaper article

“People have no idea where our food comes from”

Date

2009-11-01

Authors

J. P. Antonacci

Abstract

Italo-Canadian photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo has long had an interest in documenting the immigrant experience. After coming to Toronto as a 12-year-old boy from his native Calabria, Pietropaolo studied photography until finally leaving a career in city planning to focus his lens on issues of social justice.

Newspaper title

Tandem News

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Italo-Canadian photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo has long had an interest in documenting the immigrant experience. After coming to Toronto as a 12-year-old boy from his native Calabria, Pietropaolo studied photography until finally leaving a career in city planning to focus his lens on issues of social justice.
For decades, Pietropaolo has photographed migrant agricultural workers in Canada and their home countries. His latest book, Harvest Pilgrims: Mexican and Caribbean Migrant Farm Workers in Canada (published by Between the Lines), gathers together stories and photographs of those who toil for minimum wage under difficult conditions in a nearly invisible industry. These photographs have toured internationally, including at an exhibit in Mexico City curated by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography.
The Harvest Pilgrims book launch will take place on Nov. 10 at the Stephen Bulger gallery in Toronto. Pietropaolo will present a slide show of his photos and talk about the project.
Tandem reached Pietropaolo in Montreal.

What first drew you to the subject of migrant workers, and what has kept you coming back to photograph them for over 20 years?
“Migrant workers are one of those groups in society that very few people know about, but they do a very important job. They basically are the ones who harvest most of our food in Ontario, and it’s jobs that are usually left to immigrants – they’re not really immigrants, because they really are guest workers. They’re not immigrants in the usual sense, because they can’t stay in Canada permanently. They stay on a temporary basis. They come from Mexico, Jamaica, and different countries in the Caribbean. They earn minimum wage. We really couldn’t afford to grow most of our food if we paid everybody minimum wage. So that’s why they’re essential to our agriculture.”

The book is Harvest Pilgrims – why pilgrims?
“[The migrant worker program] was originally started in 1969 with a few people, and it’s expanded over the years. There are about 20, 000 people who come here now every year. And they keep coming. Some of them keep coming to the same farm year after year after year, which is kind of interesting. That’s why I called the book Harvest Pilgrims. They’re like pilgrims – they go to the same spot.”

Do you see something spiritual in what they do?
“I think food is spiritual, and food is sacred. You know, usually when you use the word ‘pilgrim’ or ‘pilgrimage,’ you refer to a place that’s sacred, that you go back to every year. And these guys go back to the harvest. So I think there’s a connotation there of sacredness.”

Are migrant workers actually able to make money while in Canada?
“They do save lots of money to bring home, and that’s why they come. Because when they go home, they have some cash, which they couldn’t have otherwise. Even though what they earn is minimum wage, and a lot of that money is spent on their airline tickets, and sometimes their accommodation. They also pay into the employment insurance deductions and Canada Pensions. That’s actually quite unfair, isn’t it? Since they’ll never actually be in a position to collect. Also, much of the money they earn ends up staying in Canada, as they buy things that they take back home with them to their families. It’s interesting, as it’s a win-win for Canada.”

What inspires you to photograph these workers?
“As an artist, I’m interested in social documentary work. I’ve photographed immigrants for a long time. To begin with, I originally photographed Italian immigrants in Toronto. I myself am an immigrant.”

Speaking of your immigrant experience, did you notice any similarities between the Italian immigrants you photographed earlier and migrant workers?
“I think both groups have great motivation. The difference is, when you’re a landed immigrant you have an actual stake in the country. You can set roots, buy a house, bring your family. You can actually grow with the country. When you’re a migrant worker, you’re a guest – a temporary guest – and you have no way ever of settling down. You cannot bring your family. And so, it’s a very transitory thing. In a way, you’re giving your labour, and you’re taking away some money with you, but that’s all you’re taking.”

Having learned about migrant workers for many years now, what do you think about the current system?
“I think [migrant workers] should be allowed to stay in the country. They should be allowed to organize into unions, like other industrial workers, especially in industrial farms. You know, the traditional family farm is becoming a myth. For the most part, it’s the large industrial farms that become successful now. And I don’t see a reason why they can’t come to Canada and use the experience they get here. Some of them come for 20 years, living between two worlds, but they can never use that experience that their employers come to rely on – in terms of running complex farm machinery – they never can use that as an argument for them to stay in Canada and apply for permanent status.”

How was your show in Mexico City received?
“[The show] was received very positively. A lot of Mexicans didn’t know about this, as they usually hear about Mexicans going into the United States. But they found it educational and enlightening, as they weren’t aware of the conditions. In Mexico, the [migrant worker] program itself is 35 years old now. For the workers who do come, it’s a great benefit as they have the opportunity to work. But that doesn’t mean that the way it’s set up is completely just.”

Harvest Pilgrims: Mexican and Caribbean Migrant Farm Workers in Canada will launch Nov. 10, 7-9 p.m. at the Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen St. W. See www.bulgergallery.com. The Harvest Pilgrims photo exhibit is on display until Dec. 30 at the Workers Arts & Heritage Centre in Hamilton. Visit wahc-museum.ca for details.

File Attachments

Economic sectors

Agriculture and horticulture workers

Target groups

Public awareness

Geographical focuses

Canada, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia, Other provinces, Federal, Nova Scotia, and National relevance

Languages

English