Dignifying farm work

Growing up in Southern California as the son of an aerospace worker, Ricardo Mendoza never had to live the life of a migrant laborer.

But he had a document framed on the wall at home that connected him to that part of the world.

That was a letter from Cesar Chavez to Mendoza's grandfather, who served with the Mexican Consul and worked with the legendary activist to address human rights issues.

"I did not have the opportunity to meet him," Mendoza said. "I think the letter is dated 1964 or '5, and I was just a kid."

Across the continent, in New York, another future artist, Josh Sarantitis, found himself inspired as a child when he read Chavez's biography. Years later, he provided artwork for campaigns by the United Farm Workers, the group Chavez co-founded — although, like Mendoza, he never met the leader in person.

Two artists, two backgrounds, two coasts of the continental United States. But through their shared passion for honoring some of the country's hardest-working and least-rewarded people, Mendoza and Sarantitis will come together this year to build a new installation at the OC Fair & Event Center.

The project, "Table of Dignity," is set to be worked on during this summer's OC Fair and completed in time for the Centennial Farm's 25th anniversary in October. Over the coming months, Mendoza and Sarantitis will put together a display by the Millennium Barn containing a sculptural table surrounded by raked sand, a timber bench around the perimeter and entry portals made of rammed earth — a technique for building walls made of raw materials.

For that last part, the artists will get a bit of help from the community — Mendoza and Sarantitis plan to hold workshops to teach participants how to make rammed earth. And the communal aspect of the display won't end there, since the creators plan to embed containers of living crops in the walls and possibly use the produce for special meals.

Will "Table of Dignity" inspire visitors to ponder the lives of those who stock their local supermarket? Maybe, but Sarantitis suspects that the interpretations won't end there.

"I think that any really good, well-designed piece of artwork allows the viewer to bring their own personal history to the piece and then create their own experience from it," the Brooklyn resident said. "We're basically designing sort of a framework for people to experience it in different ways. So somebody who might be connected directly to the farm worker movement might have a much different experience than someone who's just studying about farm workers or has never met a farm worker or doesn't know where their vegetables come from."

Last year, the OC Fair & Event Center's Board of Directors approved plans for an agricultural workers memorial. In collaboration with the nonprofit Arts Orange County, the center offered a commission for an artist or team and chose Mendoza and Sarantitis out of 49 applicants.

Michele Richards, the fair's chief business development officer, called the memorial a natural extension of the fairgrounds.

"If you look at the mission of the OC Fair & Event Center, it is to focus on a celebration of our heritage and agriculture," she said. "And so, when you look at the many, many workers who helped build Orange County and its agricultural roots, the board wanted to provide a permanent public art structure that would honor those workers, many of whom faced great challenges in their work."

It won't be the two artists' first collaboration in Southern California. In 2004, the duo worked on "El Deseo de Progresar/The Will to Progress," a ceramic mosaic at the MTA Blue Line Firestone Station in Los Angeles. Mendoza has also contributed murals in Long Beach, Echo Park and elsewhere, as well as the field office of future Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

In planning the fairgrounds installation, the artist sought materials that would mirror the subject matter of migrant labor — not only the living crops, but also the rammed earth, which is created by mixing soil with cement and sand and packing it tightly.

"We wanted to honor raw materials, honor the authenticity of materials," Mendoza said. "The rammed earth came about as a notion of the fact that, again, you're talking about honoring workers who labor with their hands in the earth — with the earth, with the soil."

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