LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (KTSM) – New Mexico State University displayed an art installation Tuesday to honor borderland farmworkers and two decades of NMSU’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP).
The installation, “Mariposas Campesinas: Love Letters to our Farmworkers,” stems from a project for the J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium and will be on display for the public through Oct. 15 on the west side of Milton Hall.
The installation consists of three hundred butterflies made by students. The art installation opened on Tuesday as October 12th is known as “Dia de la Raza”.
“This day is meant for us to remember and teach that all people are worthy of respect, honor, and dignity,” said Martha Estrada, CAMP Director. “In 2020, we praised farmworkers as heroes for keeping the nation fed. The work they do is essential, always, not only during times of crisis.”
For 20 years, CAMP has served students who are children of migrant and seasonal farmworkers or students who have been farm workers. To help them transition to the college environment as freshmen, these students receive a $1,500 scholarship, book stipends, and meal allowances as well as peer mentoring and support, particularly from Yvette Cortes, CAMP’s freshman adviser.
CAMP was among only eight programs in the nation awarded a five-year, $2.1 million grant in 2017 from the U.S. Education Agency’s Office of Migrant Education. The program’s funding will be up for renewal again in 2022.
For the 2020-2021 freshmen cohort, CAMP students had a 93 percent retention rate after their first year at NMSU, said Cynthia Bejarano, regents professor and principal investigator of the grant, while 70 percent of CAMP bachelor’s graduates have stayed in the New Mexico workforce.
“Justice for Farmworkers” was the theme for the J. Paul Taylor Social Justice Symposium in 2020. Although the symposium was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions and hosted virtually in 2021, plans for the art installation “Mariposas Campesinas: Love Letters to our Farmworkers” continued.
“The CAMP student council partnered with the J. Paul Taylor Academy to create an art exhibit for that event,” said Ricardo Trejo, CAMP recruitment and outreach coordinator. “The CAMP student council, myself, and some other CAMP students created a lesson plan and presented it to the art teacher at the J. Paul Taylor Academy. She liked it and scheduled us to go into the classroom to host these workshops.”
These workshops involved discussions about the importance of farm work, what farm work is, a historical overview of farm work, and how farm work ties into the economy of southern New Mexico and the overall United States.
Of the four workshops planned, they were able to do three between March 5 and March 12, 2020, before “the whole world stopped” because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trejo said.
A collage of Monarch butterfly cutouts decorated with art by the middle-schoolers at the academy and with personal messages written by the students to farmworkers would have been exhibited at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Museum, then delivered individually to farmworkers in the borderland. The pandemic canceled those plans.
As a result, the work is now being displayed in front of the CAMP offices at Milton Hall on the NMSU campus. More than 300 butterfly pieces have been contributed and collected by Las Cruces-based artist Jesús Del Río, a first-generation immigrant, former farmworker, CAMP alumnus, and current NMSU art major.
“The structure will be a standing structure, 14 by eight by six feet, and it’ll have the butterflies from the J. Paul Taylor Symposium on it,” Del Río said, adding construction of the exhibit has taken about two weeks.
The butterflies are not just from J. Paul Taylor Academy students. In addition to submissions from schools around the region, butterflies also came in from as far away as the Philippines, thanks to Cynthia Bartow, CAMP’s administrative assistant, who was raised there.
“Growing up in a third-world country, I have seen poverty and lack of opportunity to grow and be successful in life firsthand,” Bartow said. “My parents worked hard for all of us to go to a university and to graduate with a degree, so we can have a better life. But even if you have a degree, there’s just not enough jobs for everyone. I learned to work tirelessly day and night and take every opportunity for work, regardless if I have to travel far from home.”
Bartow started working with CAMP in January 2021. She originally moved to Las Cruces from the Philippines in 2016 and said she can relate to the challenges that farmworker families face.
“They try to get every opportunity they can and would take any farm job regardless of how far and hard it is. If they need to be far from their family or under the scorching sun, they still do it,” Bartow said. “Working with CAMP gave me the opportunity to help kids going through the same hardships of missing their family, being alone in a totally different environment.”
For Trejo, the work he does with CAMP is more than a job.
“I come from a seasonal farm work family,” Trejo said. “My parents are from Mexico. They took us to the farms as little kids and as I grew up, I helped them on the farms so this work is not only something I do professionally, but it’s very close to home. When I talk to students and community members about the importance of farm work, it’s part of me and created my identity.”
For Del Río, the opportunity to build the structure gives him the chance to channel his identity as both the son of a migrant worker and a queer Latino artist.
“I started working in agriculture when I was 16,” Del Río said. “This project is about paying homage to farmworkers, and I’m able to do that because of my background.”
The decorated butterfly cutouts used in the installation have a symbolic meaning.
“A lot of immigrant rights activists use the butterfly to symbolize the natural flow of migration,” Trejo said. “But just as butterflies are important to the environment, migrant farmworkers are important to our community and economy.”
“When we were creating these butterflies, they reminded us to be grateful for those whose hands literally feed us,” said Estrada. “We hope this exhibit will leave a lasting impression that will always remind us to honor and respect the hard work and the people who do that work.”
After the installation is over, CAMP students and staff plan to personally deliver the butterfly messages to farmworkers.