'Grapes and Tortillas': artist shares stories of sacrifice in B.C.'s wine industry

Grapes and Tortilla exhibition takes an intimate look at hundreds of Mexican workers in Canada's wine capital

Art exhibition takes an intimate look at hundreds of Mexican workers in Canada's wine capital

Grapes and Tortillas tells the stories of Mexican fruit pickers in the Okanagan, many of whom have travelled far and wide to earn money for their families. (Deborah Koenker,)

A new installation at the Kelowna Art Gallery shares the stories of the Mexican workers behind some of B.C.'s most famous wines.

Grapes and Tortillas is an exhibition by artist Deborah Koenker inspired by the many Mexican agricultural workers hired by the Okanagan Valley's fruit orchards and vineyard. It's meant to pay tribute to their hard work and personal sacrifice.

Koenker joined host Sheryl MacKay on CBC's North by Northwest.

"These people are really beautiful," she said. "They're really fun, and they're very hard working on behalf of their families — and they miss their families," she said.

The installation is meant to celebrate the hard work and sacrifice endured by the hundreds of migrant workers in Canada's wine capital. (Deborah Koenker)

The installation features 160 portraits of workers from the Okanagan valley, many of whom make a yearly trip north to earn money for their families. It took Koenker three years to take all the photos, oftentimes approaching subjects in Mexican grocery stores.

She would ask them to write their personal story on a tortilla shell, and hold it up for the photo.

"I really wanted to give [them] voice — I'm no expert in their lives," she said.

Artist Deborah Koenker has been working on the installation for the last three years. (Deborah Koenker)

A lot of the workers had mixed feelings about working in Canada, says Koenker. For example, one woman wondered whether the trip was worth the sacrifice, while others shared a sense of pride in where they came from.

"One man drew a picture — he was the only one who drew a picture, and he had such a look of longing on his face — but he drew a picture of where he comes from, the mountain with the sun rising behind it," she said. 

"And he had this gaze as he looked off to the side, just recalling it, and missing it."

Koenker said themes that arose from her conversations with workers were poor living conditions on the farms, mean bosses, and the desire to become a permanent Canadian resident.

Raising awareness

In Canada, agricultural businesses are allowed to hire temporary foreign workers for up to eight months under the SWAP program.

Each year, farmers and orchardists hire workers from Mexico and the Caribbean, often paying them minimum wage.

The workers contribute to the local and national economy but often don't enjoy the benefits, says Koenker.

"[They earn] $10.35 an hour, and there's taxes deducted, there's Canada Pension Plan deducted — and there's employment insurance that they'll never be able to collect," she said.

Koenker hopes the installation will encourage people to have conversations about how workers are treated and recognize their importance to B.C.'s celebrated wine industry.

"It's really about raising people's awareness that [they're here] and trying to build that bridge between cultures."

Grapes and Tortillas runs until October 30.

With files from CBC's North by Northwest

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Grapes and Tortillas examines Mexican workers in B.C.'s wine industry