Farm Workers, Skeptical at First, Join In on the Fun


Several weeks ago, while picking carrots in a Kern County field, Francisco Reyes heard that a world-famous Bulgarian artist was hiring workers to help put up thousands of giant yellow umbrellas.

At first, he thought it was a joke.

"In my country, El Salvador, only little girls use umbrellas," Reyes, a stout 28-year-old, said Sunday as he flexed his muscles and smiled broadly. "I thought my friends were acting crazy."

They weren't. On Sunday, Reyes began working as a security guard for Christo, the artist who plans to open 1,760 umbrellas along Interstate 5 in the Tejon Pass on Tuesday.

"It's true, I used to pick vegetables, but now I am protecting umbrellas for an important artist," Reyes said proudly, standing next to a road with a sweeping view of the pass. "I know nothing about art, but this is the easiest job I have ever had."

Most of the nearly 2,000 workers hired for the project are fans of Christo--college professors, students, retired people. They have worked on or admired his other creations.

Reyes is one of about 200 farm laborers bused in daily from Bakersfield to assemble and guard the umbrellas.

"I never heard of him before, but then I don't know any artists. I work in the fields," said Reyes, who wore an official project T-shirt with pictures of umbrellas. Reyes is being paid $5 an hour, more than he would usually make sweating in the fields.

The laborers, mainly natives of Mexico and El Salvador, were hired through contractors in Kern County.

"I've never worked for an artist--this is fun," said Arside Medrano, another security guard from El Salvador, as he stood near an umbrella outside a fast-food restaurant in Gorman. "It's very strange, but I like it better than packing onions."

Ciro Saenz, who came to this country four months ago from a small town in central Mexico, said he has learned a lot about art and the United States in the week he has worked for Christo. Also on his work crew is Alberto Rey, a Spanish-speaking professor of art from State University of New York in Fredonia. Rey has explained the subtleties of the artist's work, Saenz said.

"It's a very interesting project," he said. "I don't understand Christo, but I think he is a genius."

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