At one end of Coachella Valley, two hours east of L.A., there are golf courses, infinity pools, Koch Brothers retreats, and a hipster music festival. In another part of the valley, thousands of migrant farmworkers pick grapes, lettuce, and dozens of other crops for the rest of the country, sometimes living in rundown trailers or on the street.
Over two years, Los Angeles-based photographer Noé Montes traveled to the valley to document the lives of some of the people in the farmworker community there–particularly those who are working as activists and advocates to fix problems such as arsenic in the local drinking water.
“It’s very personal,” says Montes, who grew up in a family of migrant farmworkers. “When I was growing up, what our lives consisted of was moving around. Probably every six months we’d move, all throughout my childhood and into my adolescence, basically following the harvest, wherever there was work.”
Coming from that experience, he wanted to show a more complex picture of farmworker life than a simple statement about social injustice. “The way that farmworkers are depicted is very, to my mind, simplistic,” he says. “A lot of times, very condescending.”
His project profiles people like Silvia Paz, who moved to Coachella Valley when she was seven years old after her father died and her mother found work in the farm fields. After becoming interested in activism in high school, Paz later studied public policy at Harvard and returned to lead a community organization.
By focusing on individuals, he hopes that viewers who might have only seen farmworkers in the distance, working in the fields, begin to think about the community differently.
“I hope that especially in this political climate, where there’s so much rhetoric flying around about ‘the other,’ that people see this work about this community, about farmworkers, and that it humanizes them,” he says. “A farmworker is also a person with family, and aspirations, and problems. We’re more similar than we are different.”