On a rainy night on March 21, 2018 in Merced, Cal Ag Roots friends and fans gathered to hear stories celebrating the people who skillfully criss-cross cultural borders dozens of times a day as they shape the landscape of the San Joaquin Valley. Borderlands was a live story-telling event that challenged the common misunderstanding that the Central Valley is an agricultural wonder of the world because of a magical mixture of technology, capital and land. Taken together, the Borderlands performances, told an entirely different story. The stage lights of the Merced Multicultural Arts Center were trained that evening on people from communities who have come to the Valley from around the world with cultural, social and ecological farming knowledge that has helped to build the farming industry.
The black-box theater at the Merced Multicultural arts center was filled with color for Borderlands– Janaki Jagannath built an altar honoring farmworkers that featured a bounty of locally-grown fruits and vegetables along with farm implements, photos and the words “Quien Cuidará Su Jardín?” (Who Will Tend Their Garden?) and gorgeous woodcuts by Patricia Wakida (from Wasabi Press) set the scene for the Borderlands story-tellers’ stirring performances. We heard from Rosa Lopez, an indigenous woman from Oaxaca with a mole-making business in Fresno, and from Brian Nagata, a Buddhist priest who’s studied the history of Buddhist temples in the Valley. We were enchanted by a couple of student-produced audio pieces about family recipes by Omar Gonzalez and Cindy Cervantes and spell-bound by a performance of Ours to Lose, a play about a Hmong farming family written by Yia Lee and performed by Fong Xiong, Ka Vang and Fuchi Thao. A video produced by the Pan Valley Institute, From Our Roots/Desde Nuestras Raices brought the voices and faces of immigrants from across the Valley into the theater. Two powerful, Valley-based poets, Aideed Medina and Marisol Baca, treated us to a collaborative performance crafted just for Borderlands that explored the ways their stories and communities are intertwined. And then there was the music! Lupe Martinez opened the evening with songs and guitar from his field organizing days– and he was joined on vocals by Janaki Jagannath and Martha Armas-Kelly. Dayanna Sevilla sang a beautiful Cumbia del Mole and Lance Canales closed out the show with an incredible performance of Woody Guthrie’s Plane Crash at Los Gatos (Deportee).
This was the second major Cal Ag Roots live story-telling event since the project’s launch. Since March, I’ve been doing a lot of comparing Borderlands of the San Joaquin Valley with our first live event, Docks to Delta, which was performed on the Capitol Corridor train in the fall of 2015. Where Docks to Delta stimulated vibrant conversation and revealed the history behind the landscape we were traveling through, Borderlands moved the audience powerfully with passionate, often emotional, performances in a beautiful black-box theater setting. Designed as a kind of “after-party” for the 2018 Rural Justice Summit at UC Merced, we wanted Borderlands to explore some of the themes we had been discussing all day long at the Summit from a personal perspective, drawing heavily on art and story to open up new thinking about the Valley. I performed a framing Cal Ag Roots audio piece (which you’ll hear in the next Cal Ag Roots podcast episode), but for the majority of the evening we heard from San Joaquin Valley residents, telling their own stories, in their own voices. And the result was an incredibly heartfelt evening that left me feeling fortunate enough to have gotten an intimate glimpse into Valley life.
For those of you who missed the live performance of Borderlands, never fear! We captured the evening on video and audio, in order to share the stories widely. Over the next few months we’ll be featuring some of the highlights from Borderlands live as part of our Cal Ag Roots podcast– and, when we can, we’ll be sharing short videos from the event that relate to each of those stories. Here’s one of our absolute favorite moments from the evening, performed by Marisol Baca and Aideed Medina: Enláces: A Collaboration Between Two Poets.
Stay tuned for more from Borderlands– be sure to subscribe to the Cal Ag Roots podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast fix!
And thank you to Cal Ag Roots funders whose support makes our work possible: The 11th Hour Project, The Food and Farming Communications Fund, The National Endowment for the Humanities, California Humanities, The Switzer Foundation and a generous group of individual donors.