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© by Lelia Byron.

AS I LISTENED TO THE SOUNDS OF AN UPSTREAM CURRENT

The paintings and texts below are based on interviews made from 2016 - 2017.  This work was exhibited at Brown University's Granoff Center for the Creative Arts from August - September 2017.

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OLIVIA WEAVING

Painting and Text by Lelia Byron

Olivia weaves, embroiders, and paints her designs into fabrics. As an artist myself, it is interesting to interview another artist. We chat about our love for bright colors and the difficulties in making a sustainable income from our work. Wearing an embroidered top, a long black skirt, and a braided belt, she kneels and wraps a strap from her loom around her back. The loom, which consists of various wood rods and strands, is traditionally hung over a tree to resist the force the weaver applies to compress the strings together. Nowadays Olivia, who is originally from Guatemala, hangs her loom over the staircase in her house in New Bedford. Olivia weaves a rod wrapped with yarn over and under the strings in her loom to form a pattern. Then she takes another tool and rakes it down forcing the crisscrossing strings to fit together tightly. As she weaves she counts strings: twenty over, four under, etc. It requires such focus that if you begin to think about anything else you will lose your concentration and ruin your textile.

 

Olivia was seven when her grandmother taught her to weave. She watched her grandmother make all of her clothes, and she wanted to try it. The colors, shapes, and animals may seem invented because they are so bright and imaginative, but Olivia says that everything from shape to animal to color is inspired by what she sees in the natural world around her.  Women in her home village literally take color from nature. For example, if you saw a flower with a particular red that you liked, you could pick the flower and boil it with the yarn that you spun from your own sheep. Each town is known for its own traditional colors that have changed over time for shirt and skirt. The important colors in Olivia’s village are black for darkness, red for blood, green for nature, yellow for the sun, blue for water, and white for clarity.

 

Olivia weaves the colors from nature that reflect her own mood. These days Olivia has a few individuals who help her by bringing her materials from Guatemala and assisting in exporting her work internationally. Olivia tells me that it is difficult to sell detailed woven designs, so she mostly sells plain purchased fabrics on which she paints her designs. Weaving is time consuming: in a year she can make twelve to twenty small pieces or five large pieces with basic designs. Textiles with elaborate designs take even longer—perhaps many months to complete one piece. However, she prefers to make these large elaborate pieces because she has complete creative control over every detail. In the future, Olivia is interested in working more on clothing designs because she wants to bring color and happiness into what people wear. 

 

Going back to Guatemala would be impossible for Olivia because there is a personal vendetta against her. Olivia fled Guatemala after her father was intentionally poisoned and men in the community began to harass her day and night. These men continually tried to enter her home and threatened to kill her if she denounced them. Olivia worries these days about her mother who still lives in Guatemala.

 

I ask Olivia if the tradition of weaving is typically passed down through women. “Not necessarily,” she tells me, citing a village near her hometown where the men are famous for weaving elaborate designs. However, in her family she is passing the tradition on to her daughter. Much to her mother’s pride, her daughter is now learning to weave at the same age that Olivia was when she first began. Olivia says that she is excited that her daughter shares this interest and is proud of her heritage.

 


** Some names of people and places have been changed.

Adrian and the Centro Comunitario de los Trabajadores
Painting and Text by Lelia Byron

Adrian was born in the Maya Quiché region of Guatemala in 1972. In a naturally mountainous region that he describes as neither hot nor cold, he was born into this world cut free from his mother’s umbilical cord with a machete. As a boy, he liked to hunt, play with animals, and make up songs to sing. He also spent a large part of his childhood looking up in the sky fearful of the helicopters that were present because of the civil war. When he was eight, his recurring nightmare came true. As he was walking outside with his mom, a bomb was dropped from a helicopter not fifty feet from where he was standing. He says he remembers the letters “USA” written on the helicopter. As he looked up at his mom with broken teeth and blood in his mouth, he could only see her lips moving as the bomb had rendered him temporarily deaf. The helicopter came back and bombed again. 

 

Later Adrian and his mom were captured and tortured by the Guatemalan army because they suspected his family was part of an armed rebel group. He and his mom managed to escape, but the violence against his family continued. When he was twelve, he left with a cousin for Mexico, speaking K’iche’ and no Spanish. “I am not Latino,” he tells me, “I am Mayan.” In Mexico, as well as a few years later in the U.S., people received him by telling him that he was not one of them. 

 

Adrian came to the U.S. through Arizona. He had a hard time finding work and at first slept in the streets. After hearing that there was more work in the Northeast, he traveled in 1990 to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He is very clear on his reasons for coming to the U.S. “I did not come here for the American dream,” he says, “I came here because of the war in Guatemala.”

 

Adrian began to work for a fish packaging company where he was paid $4 an hour in cash and lived off of discarded fish parts for food. At that time, there were about 150 workers in total in the factory, all undocumented immigrants. The workers had no protective gear, no instructions, and no health insurance. If an injury happened, often because workers did not know safety measures or were forced to do unsafe jobs, supervisors would pressure workers into saying they were injured at home instead of work. The company knew when inspections by the authorities would occur in advance, and would follow sanitary and safety procedures only during those times. After some years, Adrian began to ask for things like safety measures. They told him that in order to get those things he needed to show them his papers. 

 

Adrian is now the Executive Director at the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT). In 2007, CCT was formed in New Bedford, Massachusetts with the purpose of helping the thousands of undocumented immigrants in the local area obtain their rights. This was after a raid at a local factory where over 360 undocumented immigrants were arrested (see: Juana and the Raid). 

 

When I first spoke to Adrian about my idea for the painting series, he was very excited realizing that these stories could reach a new audience. He said that one of the biggest problems they continually face is that the community of undocumented people is rather hidden so it is very easy for some people such as employers to take advantage of them. As we talk he proudly shows off his new awards hanging behind his desk. He said that the most meaningful achievement for him at CCT is to help workers receive salary for hours they worked but were never paid, which Adrian calls “plata robada,” or literally “stolen money.” As for himself, he hopes one day to be able to start his own business. He believes that Mayans are the “true conservators” of the world and hopes to see a Mayan leader in the future. Adrian, who describes himself as a religious person and talks about both Catholicism and his Mayan religion, is not worried about achieving his personal dreams in the future and believes that his path will be that of destiny. 

 

** Quiché refers to the region in Guatemala and K’iche’ to the language and people.

** Some names of people and places have been changed.

JUANA AND THE RAID
Painting and Text by Lelia Byron

There was too much snow everywhere and her son was sick, but Juana was afraid that if she did not go to work on March 6, 2007 she would be fired. Juana had been working at this particular leather factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts for only a year when the raid occurred.

 

That day, Juana was working in the factory as usual when many people in uniforms, some with facemasks and guns, entered. Everyone began to run and the uniformed people took out their guns and said, “If you run we have the right to shoot you.” Juana, who was working next to her cousin, told him not to run. When a uniformed man made his way to her he asked for her ID. Juana showed her Guatemalan identification card, and he answered, “I am not interested in that s••t.” Juana was arrested along with 360 other factory workers. Juana wanted to go get her son, who was with a babysitter for the day, but they told her he was old enough to take care of himself. He was two.

 

Buses took Juana and the others to Boston where she spent one night in a small room with many other women. Officers constantly tried to pressure her to sign papers, and Juana, who did not speak English, did not understand what the form said. One officer, however, told her in Spanish that she should not sign the form if she had kids. Later, Juana would learn that the form was for voluntary deportation. Many knew that their children would be stranded at schools and daycare because they were not there to pick them up. Juana was able to call home, and she learned that her son’s illness was getting worse that day.

 

From Boston, Juana was flown to Texas. She was handcuffed at the feet, waist, and wrists during the entire trip. When they arrived in Texas, the women arrested during the raid were put in with the general prison population. Orange uniforms were for the general prison population and blue for the undocumented people. The prisoners in orange harassed the undocumented women. 

 

Meanwhile, as all of this happened, Juana continued asking to be reunited with her son. Officers told her to give them her son’s location, but Juana would not because she was afraid of what might happen to him if she did. She stayed in Texas for nine days. Everyday they would wake her up to pressure her to sign the voluntary deportation form, now presented to her in Spanish. Meanwhile, someone who was taking care of Juana’s son while she was in Texas eventually took him to the doctor in New Bedford. The doctor wrote a letter stating that in order to save her son’s life, it was necessary that his mother be released to care for him. Juana was then flown back home; she is one of the few from the raid who was allowed to return. After returning to New Bedford, Juana was required to call every month and to visit the authorities in person every six months. 

 

Juana tells me this story as she sits with bright coral colored shoes tucked under the leg of her chair. It is clear that the events are still painful for her ten years after the raid. Yet she wants to share her story to help others learn what their rights are, to educate and defend themselves. She also wants employers to learn that they have to respect their employees. Juana believes the importance of speaking up for your rights is not about money. It is about finding justice. She says she doesn't want to spend her life “serving a patron” and hopes to create her own small store selling sábanas, morrales, faldas, and burritos with her husband. 

 

** Some names of people and places have been changed.

FISH CLEANERS: ROSA AND RUTH
Painting and Text by Lelia Byron

Ruth tells me that she and Rosa are the “fish cleaners.” These two women work for a seafood processor and distributor in New Bedford, Massachusetts. They are the only women in their department of seven workers. While the men chop, they “clean” the fish by taking out the spines and the “garbage.” The two women, who differ in age by thirteen years, became friends when Rosa first came to work and Ruth helped her learn her job. They laugh when they tell me, “We mirror each other.” Ruth is left-handed and Rosa is right-handed.

 

I was supposed to talk to the two friends at the same time, but Rosa arrived early to the interview. When she entered the room, I was surprised to see how young she was. She is only seventeen years old. Rosa came to New Bedford about a year and a half ago. The youngest of four siblings, she says that her mother had become too old to work and her father had passed away when she was five. Even though her mother did not want her to leave, Rosa wanted to support her. Rosa asked her two siblings who already lived in New Bedford to help her relocate to the U.S. to earn an income. Recently, Rosa’s supervisor began to express a romantic interest in her, but when she refused to reciprocate, her supervisor had his boss fire her. A reserved and soft-spoken teenager, Rosa tells me this simply as a matter of fact without emotion. 

 

As I talk to Rosa, Ruth enters the room out of breath laughing to see that Rosa has arrived early. Ruth says that up until recently the two of them worked most of their days smiling and talking until their supervisor began to harass Rosa. Ruth exuberates warmth and friendliness. She came to the U.S. from El Salvador when she was nineteen in 2005. She has two sons, ages eight and eleven, who are interested in math and science at school. Ruth likes to play basketball with them. From a large family of eleven siblings, she describes her home in El Salvador as “bonita,” but says she is happy where she is currently and does not miss anything from her country of birth.

 

The schedule of their “fish cleaning” job is twelve to sixteen hours a day, three days a week, with a thirty-minute lunch break. Longer days mean that the supervisor pressures employees to work faster. Employees are notified of their upcoming hours by phone calls. Still, Ruth says the salary and work is much better than what she could find in El Salvador.

 

In the future, Rosa hopes to find a job related to sewing because she believes it is easier than cleaning fish. Meanwhile, Ruth tells me that her ultimate dream is to help people and to be the “best mom in the world.” Over the past few years she says she has begun to learn “what is justice, what it is to talk, and what it means to defend yourself and your compañeros.”

 

My interview with Rosa and Ruth was one of my first interviews for this series. I had the idea to make these paintings after reading a headline in a local newspaper about seafood processing factories in Rhode Island. I immediately connected to this subject and wanted to know more about the people who work in these factories. Who are they and what are their dreams? I started contacting people, and now after a year of painting, interviewing, and writing, the result is this exhibition. 

 

** Some names of people and places have been changed.

LUIS SUPERVISING THE FARM
Painting and Text by Lelia Byron

Days after walking through the desert without food or water Luis, who was 16 at the time, arrived in Phoenix, Arizona. Then he took a plane to Providence where his brother was already working. 

 

Luis stood out from the other people I interviewed because he was genuinely excited about his job. He was also the only supervisor. Luis, until recently, worked at a New Bedford based gourmet food company whose products are sold at both retail stores and restaurants, including some in Providence (see: Camilo and His Daughter). He, along with forty other employees, was recently fired. He had worked at the company for thirteen years. When Luis first arrived his boss was new and did not have any work experience. Luis, on the other hand, had been working on his family farm since he was thirteen, so his boss quickly gave him a supervisory position. 

 

When I ask him to tell me about his job, he lights up with pride and starts listing vegetables—tomatoes, cabbages, peppers, carrots... During the spring, summer, and fall, Luis worked on the farms training employees. The men plant flowers and vegetables while the women package them inside. As supervisor he managed details like requiring that employees properly cover their hands/hair and that plants are seeded at proper distances so that the machines can pass through. In the winter he worked in the warehouse or the greenhouse. After a few years he began to speak some English with his boss. He worked fifty to sixty hours a week, seven days a week, and he would leave home even in the middle of dinner if they called saying they needed him. Luis says that he doesn't mind working hard, but he wants to be recognized for the job that he did, meaning overtime and paid vacations.

Luis, who is originally from Guatemala, always liked being outside. He started school when he was eight, but left at thirteen because his dad needed him to work on their farm cleaning milpa, beans, and vegetables that the family would sell in San Andres, Guatemala. At home he was the middle child of six brothers and six sisters who all spoke K’iche’, but when he went to school he learned to speak his second language, Spanish. When Luis was sixteen his family was not able to support itself, and so he left Guatemala. He told me, “There was no money for anything.” He thought about everything his dad had done for him, and he said to himself, “I will do for him what he did for me.”

 

These days, Luis lives with two of his brothers in New Bedford. One works for a trash company and the other is a student. Louis says he would never go back to Guatemala because he believes, “If you do people will try to kill you because they think that everyone who lives in the U.S. becomes rich.”

 

He shows me photos of himself standing proudly in a greenhouse, driving different tractors, and in front of cartons of tomatoes. “I did the job as if it was my land,” he said. There is only one question he really wants answered—why did they fire him in the first place?

 

 

** Quiché refers to the region in Guatemala and K’iche’ to the language and people.

** Some names of people and places have been changed.

I met Camilo during a meeting for workers who had recently been fired from a gourmet food company based in New Bedford. This company produces food that is sold at both retail stores and restaurants, including some in Providence. In the meeting, a room full of workers sat in a circle of folding chairs with Adrian in front of them (see: Adrian and the Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores). There were about twenty men and one woman in the room—all ex-employees ranging from teenagers to middle age. “I cannot dictate what to do,” Adrian prompted the group. “You have to decide what you want to do,” he told the workers as they debated whether or not they should protest for a second time. The first protest had not gotten them their jobs back. On a snowy day a few weeks prior to this meeting they had protested outside of the company’s building. Although they had worked there for years, the ex-employees had always been employed as temporary workers through a temporary hiring agency. At the protest, the representatives of the gourmet food company told them that they could reapply for their jobs directly through the food company (not the temporary hiring agency) and passed out applications. But none of the workers were called after filling out their applications. Camilo had been working at the gourmet food company in New Bedford for twelve years. His job was to receive the products as they arrived in the warehouse.

At the end of the meeting I explained the painting series that I was working on to the group, and Camilo was the first one to volunteer to meet with me later that week. Even though it had snowed at the protest a few weeks earlier, it was a warm spring day when I met Camilo. He wore a pair of shorts and brought his daughter to the interview, and she waited patiently while I asked her dad questions. She is one of his two children.

 

Camilo, who is thirty-four, came to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2003. Of Mayan K’iche’ ethnicity he is originally from the Quiché region in Guatemala, but his parents moved their family to the coast to escape genocide. During the war, which lasted for more than thirty years, an estimated 200,000 civilians, largely of Mayan indigenous ethnicity, were murdered. In their new home on the coast of Guatemala Camilo and his family began to speak only Spanish because of discrimination against those who spoke K’iche’. In 1995 when the war was ending they moved back to their “tierra” or land. Today, Camilo only knows a few words in K’iche’. He later moved to the U.S. due to economic reasons.

 

Camilo would have liked to be a translator or a police officer. He likes the sound of English and was learning to speak at a local language center, but his schedule made it difficult. He hopes he does not have to work at a place like the gourmet food company for the rest of his life, especially because they don’t offer vacations, holidays, benefits, or overtime, but he is not very optimistic about his future job choices. When I asked him about his dreams for the future he told me, “My dreams have already left. Dreams now are for my kids.”

 

 

** Quiché refers to the region in Guatemala and K’iche’ to the language and people.

** Some names of people and places have been changed.

CAMILO WITH HIS DAUGHTER
Painting and Text by Lelia Byron