Cross-cultural Lens

Migrant Latino and Appalachian youth transcend ethnic boundaries through art

Feature Story

by Leslie Wylie

Fourteen-year-old Zully Manzanares barks commands at the unruly subjects of her photograph, her Latino accent underscored with exasperation. â“Look at the camera!â” she shouts. â“Get closer! Now, stand still!â” 

For a split second, just long enough for Manzanares to frame the shot, the five boys cease squirming and strike a fraternal pose, their toothy grins and cappuccino eyes pointed squarely in the photographer's direction. There's a flash, and then they disperse once more, the youngest boy galloping back to his parents, the elder children dissolving into the First Friday crowd.

Manzanares makes her way into the Art Gallery of Knoxville to point out her photographs, which are sandwiched between several others along the wall's pale, white expanses. â“I like to take pictures of my family, my friends,â” she explains. â“I like to take my camera with me to parties.â”  

In one photo, a Latino girl and boy in Easter dress examine plastic eggs amid beams of sunlight on a porch. Another captures Manzanares' brothers at a christening, posing beside a vase of white roses against the backdrop of a vividly hued mural. Both images possess the aesthetic maturity of a professional photographerâ"not only are they crisp and well composed, their subjects seem to peer beyond the camera itself, meeting the viewer's gaze.

But Manzanares isn't a professional artistâ"at least not yet. As the daughter of migrant farm workers, the first half-decade of her life was spent circling between Florida and Unicoi County, following the tomato and strawberry harvests.

Manzanares' grandmother immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a 24-year old widowed mother of nine. After working in the fields for a year, she returned home for her children, integrating them into a life in which â“homeâ” varied with the seasons soon thereafter. But Manzanares' mother, Alma Andrade, insists that the perpetual relocating never seemed strange. â“The only life we knew was agriculture,â” she explains. â“Zully was a migrant baby. I was a migrant worker, then a migrant mom.â”

When traveling with young children in tow began to take its toll, Andrade settled her family in Unicoi County, where Manzanares was enrolled in the local Tennessee Migrant & Seasonal Head Start pre-K program. It was through the program's operator, the Telamon Corporation, that she would discover her talent for photography as a teenager, by way of a community project launched in 2006 that places cameras in the hands of migrant and Appalachian children from rural areas of East Tennessee.

Over the past year, the project has blossomed, enlisting several community partners including 4-H and area universities; garnering a $10,000 grant from the Starbucks Foundation; receiving donations of cameras and film from Fuji, Olympus and Ritz Cameras; and recruiting more than 20 youth participants ranging in age from 11 to 16, each of whom was issued a 35mm camera.

Fittingly, an exhibition of the young photographers' work, entitled Growing Tennessee: Rural Youth Cultivate Common Ground , will be on display at the Art Gallery of Knoxville during the months of July and August. The exhibition's opening reception, held last week during First Friday, saw the gallery bursting at the seams with visitors.

The official purpose of the project is â“to provide a creative educational outlet for rural youth while promoting cross-cultural awareness.â” After the youth are given cameras, they receive formal instruction on how to use them, ranging from sessions in the darkroom to hands-on composition lectures by professional photography instructors.

But the most important component of Growing Tennessee may be the critique sessions, in which the young photographers share their work and the stories behind each image with one another. It's an informal sort of cultural exchange program, fostering a bridge of acceptance based on understanding. With immigration issues on the national hotplate and xenophobia on the rise, the timing of the project couldn't be more appropriate.

Additionally, the project's coordinators count better grades, heightened self-esteem, improved literacy and critical-thinking skills, and increased chances of continuing education among the project's non-artistic byproducts.

One participant in the program, an especially gifted 17-year-old named Liliana Ascencio, has even expressed an interest in pursuing her passion for photography in college. During a recent visit to the Art Institute of Atlanta, she says, she fell in love with the city and spent hours photographing its architecture.

Her own photography, be it a black-and-white snapshot of children lying in the grass or a portrait of her grandparents seated on the living room couch, is defined by honesty, a kind of raw, unfiltered truth that is too often edited out of more mature, sophisticated art. This is my life , the photographs seem to say. This is who I am . One of her works, a candid portrait of her young, tiara-crowned cousin at a birthday party, was featured this week on a PR Newswire billboard on New York City's Times Square.

â“With photography, it's a representation of how we see the world,â” Ascencio says, standing on the North Gay Street sidewalk outside the art gallery. â“When you look at a photograph,â” she continues, â“you're looking at the world through someone else's eyes.â”

The route to Unicoi County is a scenic one, tracing the interstate northeast toward Johnson City before veering off into more mountainous terrain. The word â“Unicoiâ” is of Cherokee Native American origin, meaning â“fog-draped,â” and this morning it seems appropriate. Early morning mist wraps around the town's old-fashioned buildings like sheaths of cotton, nearly concealing the shops' wares: racks of dresses, a bin of watermelons, a storefront full of antiques.

For the better part of the past two hours, the time it took to commute here from Knoxville, the vehicle's two passengers have been chattering back and forth non-stop, each fueling the other's enthusiasm. In the driver's seat is Jane Crowe, coordinator of the Growing Tennessee project, an articulate woman whose ever-present turquoise jewelry seems the perfect expression of her vibrant, earthy personality. Riding shotgun is Glenn Weyant, a sound sculptor and journalism professor from Tucson, Ariz., in town to set up his contribution to the Growing Tennessee exhibition, a soundscape entitled The Anta Project .

â“Can you believe we only really met each other less than 12 hours ago?â” Crowe asks. â“It seems like it's been much longer.â” To be fair, the two exchanged ideas via phone and email for months prior to Weyant's physical arrival in Knoxville. Crowe contacted Weyant after hearing an interview with him on the National Public Radio program All Things Considered , regarding a recording project he'd recently completed that entailed â“playingâ” a three-mile wall between Mexico and the United States as an electro-acoustic instrument.

Employing a combination of found sounds (the thump of helicopters flying above the border, for instance, or the amplified microtones of very small, guttural sounds within the wall) and experimental composition (perhaps most strikingly, the hum of Weyant stroking the barbed wire fence with his cello bow), the artist managed to compile a 57-minute soundtrack of carefully choreographed ambient sound. The Anta Project â"â“Antaâ” roughly translates to â“borderâ” or â“end of territoryâ” in Sanskritâ"is also currently on exhibition at the Art Gallery of Knoxville, thanks to exhibition curator Crowe's interest in his work.

â“When I heard you on the radio, I felt this excitement, this sense of relief,â” Crowe tells Weyant. â“It was just amazing to me that something so divisive could be softened, turned into an instrument, into something beautiful.â”

Weyant humbly points out that he's not the first person to have â“played a wallâ”; other politically charged borders, such as the barbed wire surrounding concentration camps, have also yielded music in the past. But he's the only artist thus far who has applied the idea to the wall between Mexico and the United States, challenging the disturbingly popular notion that a fence could stop the flow of undocumented immigrants into our country.

â“It's an easy way of galvanizing the tension,â” he explains. â“We don't have solutions, but at least we can have a focal point for our fear: â‘We built a wall, we're safe.' But if the border has become a symbol of national insecurity, why can't we take the symbol and turn it on its head? Let's transform the wall, reconceptualize it as a bridge between two worlds.â”

At its basic level, Crowe says, that's what Growing Tennessee project is about as well: uncovering the common denominators that link two disparate cultures inhabiting the same space together. â“The children are already very proud of their cultural traditions, and it's great to be able to help them share them with each other. One of the goals of the project is to get children of different backgrounds interacting on a deeper level than they might otherwise. That's where the storytelling comes into play.â”

One of Crowe's ultimate goals for the project is to create a website that includes digital narratives from the youth. â“Both the Latino culture and the Appalachian culture have such rich storytelling traditions, I'd really like to get some area storytellers involved in the project to help the children begin to deepen their understanding of their own stories and each other's stories. And eventually, we'd like to record those stories digitally,â” she explains.

Art Gallery of Knoxville co-founder and Director Chris Molinsky suggests that, in a conceptual sense, Growing Tennessee and The Anta Project function as two halves of the same whole.

â“In terms of Jane's strategy, and in terms of hearing something that she's excited about and sort of going after it, it was the model that the gallery has always been supportive of,â” he says. â“Glenn's project compliments and exposes something about the Growing Tennessee project that might otherwise be dismissedâ. You're adding that extra element to draw out these similarities and differences between the projects, both of which show how a simple tool like photography or sound can cause a type of social change. I think it's really powerful.â”

The dual exhibition is also a good fit for the gallery, an open-minded space that has dedicated itself to bringing progressive, provocative art to Knoxville since it opened less than two years ago. (In the past, the Art Gallery has featured work by widely known contemporary artists such as John Baldesarri, Reinke Dijkstra, Gordon Matta-Clark, Max Neuhaus, Pipilotti Rist and Superflex.)

Growing Tennessee / The Anta Project certainly fits the mold of a socially conscious installation, encouraging viewers to reexamine their own prejudices and assumptions. But in a cultural climate that so often dehumanizes the issue of immigration, reducing it to a debate of legalese on Capitol Hill, and continuously reinforces through popular culture the stereotype that the inhabitants of rural Appalachia are ignorant hillbillies, the exhibition has its work cut out for it.  

During the ride to Unicoi County, Crowe fills Weyant in on the oft-challenging rural environment they're entering into, one in which longstanding racial and ethnic prejudice still permeates the air. In certain regions of East Tennessee, she explains, hostility toward immigrants continues to intermittently rear its head. The Telamon Corporation hasn't been spared; most notably, several years ago, opposition to the construction of a Migrant & Seasonal Head Start center in Bybee, Tenn., led to the burning of a barn belonging to the farmer who'd leased Telamon the land on which the center was to be built. The FBI, which investigated the burning, determined it to be a hate crime.

â“They stuck doll heads on fence-posts,â” Crowe recalls. She tightens her fists on the steering wheel, visibly disgusted by the memory. â“It's gotten better, but the xenophobia, the fear of the other, is still out there. It still exists.â”

Weyant points out that it's a universal dilemma. â“In Iraq, for instance, you've got people killing one another over differences in religion, politicsâ,â” he says. A common response, he says, is to withdraw. â“In post-9/11 America, we're walling ourselves off, walling in our country, walling in our cities, walling in our communities.â”

The two sit quietly for a moment, lost in their own thoughts. When humans have so much in common with one another, why do we go out of our way to fixate on our differences?

It's Crowe who finally breaks the silence. â“Perhaps there's also a primal instinct to unite this incredible longing, this incredible pain, that people share. Maybe that's why people are responding so powerfully to your music and the photographs, because there's something in our hearts that wants to connect, to tear down those walls.â”

At last, Crowe and Weyant pull into the parking lot of the Unicoi County Telamon center. The grounds, which consist of a modest brick structure, a modular building, and a couple of playgrounds, feel somewhat empty today, but by next week they'll be significantly more lively. Unicoi and surrounding counties are expecting the arrival of an estimated 10,000 migrants this month, just in time for the region's summer harvests of tomatoes and tobacco. By the end of October, they'll be gone, once again.

Telamon centers like this oneâ"there are five of them across the state, four of which are in East Tennessee (in Cocke, Bledsoe, Greene and Unicoi Counties)â"will absorb a percentage of the temporary influx until the migrants head south again in October. Through Migrant & Seasonal Head Start, the centers offer quality day-care at an affordable price, along with employment and training services, housing, transportation and other social services for local migrant families.

The Unicoi center's director, Silvia Fregoso, says she anticipates the enrollment of around 12 pre-K children of migrant farm workers in coming weeks. â“For many of these families, regular day-care, which costs $75 or $100 a week, is not an option,â” she explains. â“The families we see are often needy families (income below the poverty line is a requirement for admission), and 98 percent of the time both parents are working.â”

She notes that the Head Start program does not require the centers to ask whether or not the families and children are working in the States legally or illegally. Labels aside, however, it's hard to argue that migrant farm workers aren't making an incredible contribution to this country's agricultural economy. For little in monetary return, the workers put in the long, physically taxing hours of farm work that the majority of American citizens aren't willing to do themselves.

â“These are jobs that nobody else wants,â” says J. Davis, state director for Telamon Corporation: Tennessee Migrant & Seasonal Head Start. â“But they're making a making such an incredible contribution to our communities, our society. Hopefully, if for that reason alone, they'll be protected.â”

Unfortunately, their contributions are too often overlooked. Most of us, when we bite into an apple, don't really consider where it came from. Or, more specifically, who originally picked it off the tree.

â“Seventy-five percent of all the fruit and vegetables we eat were hand-harvested by migrant farm workers,â” Crowe says. â“The agriculture industry is dependent on this labor. That's one thing that I want the public to understandâ"the contribution of migrant farm workers to our community and to our society. They literally put food on our table and work up to 14 hours a day, sometimes six, seven days a week.â”

And fewer still consider the families of the migrant workers who are out in those orchards, harvesting our foodstuffs. â“Before these programs began, the families had to bring their children into the fields because they had nowhere else to take them,â” Crowe explains. â“The parents just did the best they could to keep them safe while they were working. They would literally put them in tomato boxes, swaddle them in blankets, put them in the shade and check on them as often as they could.â”

As a result of the limited time working parents are able to spend interacting with and caring for their young children, some migrant infants and toddlers develop special needs that the center's employees are trained to address, among them diabetes and delayed   speech and physical development. Inside the buildings, Telemon employees hover over desks and straighten up the pastel-hued classrooms in preparation for the arrival of this summer's crop.

Today, though, the center's job is to host a roomful of 11- to 17-year-olds, most of whom are graduates of the Head Start program whose families eventually settled in Unicoi County. On this Saturday morning, they've come in to participate in a found-sound workshop Weyant is hosting while he's in town, knowing full well that it's going to be a very long day. The children are participants in the Growing Tennessee project as well, and they have plans to carpool into Knoxville for its opening reception later this afternoon.

Weyant walks into the room carrying a box full of junk he thinks just may make for some interesting musical experimentation: spools of wire, marbles, washboards and cardboard tubes, among other assorted odds and ends. After an introduction, Weyant speaks for a few moments about The Anta Project and explains that for today's workshop, the youth will be building their own instruments out of anything they feel inspired to salvage from the pile of scrap material that's now lying in the middle of the floor.

Untrained eyes have a remarkable ability to see possibility where others may see none, be it re-imagining a length of PVC pipe as a clarinet or reclaiming a fleeting moment in daily life as a work of art.

â“Have you ever played a canjo?â” the only non-Latino boy in the room asks Weyant. Weyant shakes his head, prompting a detailed explanation of what construction of the traditionally Appalachian instrumentâ"think a one-string banjo made from a can and a stickâ"entails. Meanwhile, coffee-can drum kits are studiously being assembled, along with makeshift rain-sticks and key-chain chimes. With the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store, Weyant sifts through the pile, intermittently lending advice and anecdotes about the nature of sound. Crowe is in the next room over, drilling chopstick-sized holes into the tops of rubber balls to be used as mallets.

At some point, there's an impromptu musical storytelling session, starring a bullfrog, a cricket and a thunderstorm, followed by an all-out jam. By now, the instrument-making process has grown elaborate, with the award for â“most original instrumentâ” going to the canjo expert, who appears to have fashioned a roughshod French horn out of a length of garden hose, a plastic cup and a doctored-up water jug. When he puts his lips to the mouthpiece, the noise that comes out sounds like a brontosaurus from Jurassic Park . Weyant tells the boy he should patent his invention and market it to Hollywood.

â“What are you going to name it?â” Weyant asks.

â“A megaphone,â” the boy responds.

â“No, really,â” Weyant interjects. â“You can name it anythingâ"anything in the world. What are you going to name it?â”

The boys thinks for a moment, then shouts: â“A superphone!â”

Weyant smiles. Maybe he understands that while granting one child permission to think outside the box may not change the world, it's a good place to start.


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