Migrant worker art installation shows fruit of their labour

The artists behind an installation called Speaking Fruit want people to ask questions about their food, including who are the migrant workers bringing produce from field to fork.

Artists behind Speaking Fruit want Canadians to ask questions about their food

Rension assistant professor Craig Fortier and Toronto artist Farrah Miranda stand inside the Speaking Fruit trailer to raise awareness about migrant farm workers in Canada. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

It looks like a fruit stand you might see on the side of the road or at a farmers' market.

But much of the fruit inside the trailer is fake, packed in bags with messages such as, "If we are good enough to work here, we should be good enough to stay" and "respecting the rights of others is peace."

The trailer is part of an art installation called Speaking Fruit, which allows observers to talk with migrant farm workers as well as people who advocate on their behalf.

The creators hope it brings a powerful message about who helps to get produce out of Ontario's fields and orchards and onto your plate.

Art reaches audiences

Farrah Miranda is the Toronto artist behind the project. She's a former migrant justice organizer and she worked on campaigns to open up access to services for undocumented people and help people facing deportation or detention.

"I came to art because it's a way to reach wider audiences. I'm interested in bringing issues into public space in ways that are visual, that captivate new audiences, that create an emotional connection with the issues as opposed to just information," Miranda told CBC News.

"One of the most common reactions is, people approach it, they start to touch the produce and they ask is this real? And that is precisely the question we want people to be asking when they see and come across narratives about local produce."

The bags inside the Speaking Fruit trailer include messages from migrant workers with their feelings about working in Canada. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Interact and learn

The fruit stand art installation stopped at Renison University College at the University of Waterloo Thursday as part of a tour of Ontario, which has seen it visit Hamilton, Six Nations and North York. It will be at Nuit Blanche in Toronto this weekend, then will go to the Santa Fe Arts Institute at the end of October for a month.

Craig Fortier is an assistant professor in social development studies at Renison and helped create Speaking Fruit. The installation came to campus on Thursday to let students interact with it – including high school students from across the country currently taking part in the Canadian Student Leadership Conference in Waterloo, Ont..

"You can learn through building relationships with those people who are in our communities, who are doing the type of work – particularly migrant workers who are very isolated from the general public, and who have a lot to give and offer in terms of giving us an understanding where these fruits and where this food comes from, Fortier said.

"I think that's really important."

Many artists, many voices

While Miranda led the project, she said it was only able to be completed because of the effort the migrant workers put into it.

As part of the project, they mixed music and created a choreographed routine that can be viewed using a virtual reality headset.  

"[The music's] created in a garage at their workplace amidst the tractors and farm equipment. They took leadership over what the sound was going to be like," she said.

"I ask questions and invite people into a process," Miranda added. "What you see here isn't my work, it is the work of many artists, many migrant farm workers and organizers who shared years of knowledge."

Lisa Vanderloop is a post-grad student who viewed the virtual reality routine. She prepared for her visit to the art installation by watching a documentary on migrant farm workers. 

"I didn't know much up until I watched the documentary. But when I watched it, I learned a lot and it's really upsetting. I wish more people knew about it," she said.

Of Speaking Fruit, she said she hopes others will take the time to check it out.

"I think it is a really neat way to get the message out there," she said. 

The art installation Speaking Fruit is made to look like a fruit stand and gives information about how migrant farm workers are treated in Canada. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

'I am invisible in Canada'

Gabriel Allahdua has worked as a migrant farm worker in Ontario and is now an outreach worker based in New Hamburg.

He believes this project bridges the gap between people consuming the produce and those who harvest it, while also bringing attention to injustices migrant workers face.

And many people who take the time to explore the installation are surprised by the injustices, Allahdua added.

"From the workers' standpoint, they're really happy that there's some people fighting for them, with them and on behalf of them," he said.

He thinks that Canadians don't think enough about how migrant workers are treated here.

"[U.S. President] Donald Trump speaks about that big wall, that physical wall, but in Canada there are lots of invisible walls," Allahdua said.

"I am invisible in Canada. Thousands of migrant workers are invisible," he said, noting when he arrived for work it was always at night, and then they were driven to the farm in the dark.

"We work long hours, we work six, seven days a week, how can you see me? We live on the farm. The farmer controls our housing, we are tied to the farm. How can you see us?"

"There's so many layers and layers that make us invisible so there's that big disconnect."