Migrant workers in the United States have long been considered expendable. While food-consciousness continues to increase and our ethical standards of food, where we get it from and so on, is at the forefront of today’s society, migrant workers are still a largely invisible part of the agricultural industry. Often mistreated, underpaid, and generally taken advantage of, this way of life is essential to some families. Artist Juan Vallejo is a part of such a family, and his Master of Fine Arts thesis exhibition, Disculpe que Ande Sucio, Nací en la Tierra y Trabajo en la Tierra, is an evocative retelling of his life growing up as a migrant worker.
On view at Terminal 136, Disculpe que Ande Sucio, Nací en la Tierra y Trabajo en la Tierra or Excuse that I’m dirty, I was born in the earth/dirt and I work on the earth/dirt, employs ceramic sculptures, found objects, and burlap sacks to create the narrative of Vallejo’s early life. Originally from El Tanque de Dolores, a village built on the ruins of a hacienda in San Luis Potosi, in the mountains of Central Mexico, Vallejos’ family immigrated to the United States, prior to his birth, for the same reason many people leave one country for another: for the chance of a better life. They were after the American Dream — an ethos that has been at the core of the American way of life for decades.
While there are many problematic situations involving the idea of the American Dream, particularly for Mexican migrants, what Vallejo focuses on in his exhibition is the environment which fostered his upbringing and provided community and family. We see this particularly in Tailgate, an installation which features the tailgate of a truck full of burlap sacks, plastic baskets, and ceramic vessels. This pick-up truck holds a very visceral place in Vallejo’s memory. Vallejo states:
The back end of the pickup truck was a communal space. The tailgate was where we came together either for breakfast or lunch, to discuss how the work was going. The pickup bed also carried tools for the job necessary to keep us going. I recall the plastic picking baskets, which came in different styles and colors, and served multiple uses…as seats during communal lunch…Other times these baskets were adapted as toilet seats. A hole was cut at the bottom and placed upside-down over a shallow trench, in a nearby wooded area or a cornfield, for the older people who could not squat properly.
While the bed of the pickup truck functioned as a home in many ways, there were other parts of the migrant community that brought people together. In one corner of the gallery an old, rusted, Maytag washing machine sits next to a suspended metal, dual-sided basin. Overlaying these objects is a recording of Vallejo interviewing members of his family about this time in their lives. The machines are transportable and not at all what we think of as washing machines today. Once a week, the women would gather to wash their family’s clothes and converse. Though traveling was a way of life for a large part of the year for these migrant farmers, they created a home in immutable ways.
Vallejo’s work is reminiscent of ceramicist Juan Granados. The two artists share not only a passion for clay, but a background in migrant work. Both artists utilize a material of the earth to create dialogue between their past lives as migrant workers, their present selves as artists, and how both will influence their future. Vallejo told Unfiltered, “I look back where I came from, and look to my past experiences to shape where I’m going to in the future.” Another similarity among the two ceramicists is the use of photo transfers. Vallejo utilizes photographs of his own family working the fields, and transfers these images onto slabs of clay which are then used to replace the side mirrors of a truck. The mirrors hold up old, torn, citrus picking bags — original bags used by his mother and father years ago. The red, orange, and burgundy bags are torn in places, the colors have faded, and a few seem nearly irreparable. Yet, when Vallejo asked his father why he still kept these bags, his father replied,“Well if I ever need to go back to picking oranges, I will not have to buy another bag.”
In the center of the gallery space, spread out in groups among the gallery pillars, are wooden pallets stacked on top of each other creating a platform for burlap sacks full of various ceramic works. Some bags hold kiln-fired burlap sacks that appear to be bursting with a spherical fruit or vegetable. Other bags contain functional ceramic works such as vases, mugs, etc. The inclusion of these items represents the culmination of Vallejo’s personal past, and his artistic growth and experience during his MFA journey. Plow lines are carved around the side of a cup and screw heads are used to creative texture on another.
Hanging on the far left wall of the gallery is a large piece of burlap with a red rectangle painted in it’s center and the words “¡No venimos hasta acá para hacernos pendejos!” in large bold print. In English, “We didn’t come all the way here to act/look dumb/stupid.” This phrase was at the core of how Vallejo’s family traversed through life and something he remembers hearing his dad telling people that questioned his motivation to work in the fields. “As I go along in my graduate work, I use this as a way to represent where I came from and where my parents came from,” Vallejo told Unfiltered, “I’m not here to make a fool of myself.”
Disculpe que Ande Sucio, Nací en la Tierra y Trabajo en la Tierra will hold its First Friday opening tonight, from 6-9pm, at Terminal 136, and will be on view through December 21st. To learn more about Juan Vallejo, visit his website at https://www.juanvallejoart.com.
136 Blue Star St.
San Antonio, TX 78204
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