Agriculture in the Coachella Valley began in the early 1900’s with discovery of many artesian wells in the area. These were soon depleted and the existing irrigation system was created. Although the valley is part of the Sonoran Desert, it is a successful agricultural region because of an enormous underground aquifer and a very effective irrigation system that brings in water from the Colorado River.

Coachella Valley Farm Workers


A Documentary Project by Noé Montes

For inquiries contact Noé Montes
noe@noemontes.com.
(323) 251-1597

Portraits
Written Profiles
Purepecha
Context
Al César
Faith
Crop
Voices
Information

I had been working on making photos about farm workers very slowly over the years and in 2015 l received a Fellowship from The Alicia Patterson Foundation which allowed me to dedicate the time, focus and thought to the work that it deserved. I wanted to make this work in part because the majority of photography and documentary work that I have seen about farm workers depicts them very simply and many times condescendingly, usually as “bultos”, that is to say bent over shapes in fields, or more commonly as victims of social injustice, which while true is not the whole story. I know, from having grown up in a family of farm workers myself, that the farm worker community is a very complex one, with many assets, the most important of which is the individuals themselves. This is what this project is about. Itʼs about the people who are doing the work to make people's lives better. Almost all of them have been farm workers themselves or are the children of farm workers. I am trying to rework the frame and expose for highlights.

The Coachella Valley is two hours east of downtown Los Angeles. It is a series of connected towns that start in Palm Springs and get poorer and poorer as you go east until you get to the town of Indio. South of Indio to the Salton Sea is a great agricultural expanse dotted with a few concentrations of people in the towns of Coachella, Thermal, Mecca and the unincorporated areas of North Shore and Oasis. This is the land and the people I am talking about. It is a beautiful land, with a troubled history, like most of the American Southwest. Early on I described this project to someone and he said “that would be interesting if I cared about farm workers or social justice”. It was a joke but it stuck with me. Why is this work important? In the abstract we should care about it because of our shared humanity, if one of us is suffering then itʼs not OK. More concretely we should care because this is where some of our food comes from. Every year over 30 different crops are grown in the Coachella Valley. Produce from the valley is distributed worldwide. In the U.S. it is sold in retail outlets that range from Costco to Whole Foods, sometimes from the same field, just with a different label. Some of the people who harvest our food are homeless, they are working homeless, it is true. In addition they have to contend with inequality in education, healthcare and the justice system. There is a lack of services and infrastructure, there is arsenic in the water, alcoholism, sexual harassment and wage theft, all of this in the communities of the people who harvest our food. But there is progress. Over the past couple of generations the community is finding their voice and their agency. Many of the people profiled here value service to the community over anything else. I think there is a lot to learn here especially in a time when our society is in such dire need of empathy, kindness and understanding.

2016 was a strange year. I watched the election with apprehension and I am unsettled by what is happening in the U.S. right now. People want change. This is what the occupy movement was about, this is what the black lives matter movement is about, this is what the recent election was about. I want change. Things have to get better. Disruption is everywhere but I suspect that not much is actually changing. The problems in this community are the same ones that exist in any low income community in the U.S. (with a few specific ones thrown in for good measure). In this country we subsidize the wealthy and demonize the poor. Poor people all over the U.S. have to contend with historic, systemic abuse of power. In the face of all the rhetoric and cultural commentary this seems like a turtle and hare story, but the farm worker community in the Coachella Valley still believes in the American Dream. You immigrate here for a better life, you work hard, your children will have a better life and their childrenʼs lives will be even better because they will live in a better world. You help each other along the way.

NEWS AND UPDATES

October 2017
Farm Workers in the Coachella Valley Lecture
Palm Springs Art Museum

July 3, 2017
A conversation with photographer Noé Montes about his Coachella Valley Farm Workers Project
Interview in The Rural California Report

May 12 and 13, 2017
Rural Summit 2017 Farm Workers in the Coachella Valley Presentation
Panelist, "Creative Placemaking for Rural Communities"
The Blue Sky Center, New Cuyama, CA

April 5, 2017
"Coachella Valley Farm Workers"
Open Show #40, Gloria Delson Contemporary Arts
Los Angeles, CA

April 4, 2017
"History of the Coachella Valley and the Farm Workers Project"
Guest Lecture, California Studies, Pasadena City College
Pasadena, CA

March 20, 2017
Photographer Noé Montes'
Portraits of Coachella Valley Farm Workers Shed Light on the Unseen
LA Weekly Article about the project and the photographer Noé Montes

March 3, 2017
The Other Coachella: Meet the Migrant Farmworkers Who Pick Your Lettuce
Feature on Fast Company's FastCoExist Blog

February 1, 2017
The People in the Fields: Coachella Valley Farm Worker Documentary Project
Feature on wearemitu.com/identity

January 11, 2016
"Farmworkers and Refugees"
Guest Lecture, La Jolla Country Day School
La Jolla, CA

September 30, 2016
ReImagining Justice Community Event Part of the California Endowment's Building Healthy Communities Initiative
Photography and writing exhibition
Coachella, CA

June 11, 2016
"Photography as an Agent of Change"
Keynote Speaker, Maxfuncon 2016
Video of presentation
Big Bear, CA

May 18, 2016 "Farm Workers in the Coachella Valley"
University of California Riverside, Art Department
Visiting Artist Lecture Series
Riverside, CA

February 19, 2016
"Farm Workers in the Coachella Valley"
Guest Lecture at The Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities
Los Angeles, CA



This is parts 2, 3, 4 photo essay about farm workers in the Coachella Valley that photojournalist Noé Montes is completing under an Alicia Patterson fellowship.