Film documents lives of female farmworkers

PITTSFORD — In 2000, filmmaker Nancy Ghertner realized that although she’d lived in Sodus for 30 years, there was an entire segment of her town’s population that she knew almost nothing about.

Nestled near Lake Ontario in Wayne County, the rural community of Sodus is home to a substantial population of migrant farmworkers, many of who return each year to pick apples at the area’s many farms and orchards. It dawned on Ghertner that she only saw these migrant families when they came into town Friday and Saturday evenings to cash their paychecks and buy groceries. She became curious about the day-to-day lives of these nearly invisible neighbors, and in the fall of 2000 she asked several local farmers for permission to film their harvests and meet their laborers.

The farmers agreed, and Ghertner soon embarked on what was to become a decade-long journey of discovery. The resulting documentary, "After I Pick the Fruit: The Lives of Migrant Women," was screened for the first time Nov. 3 in front of a standing-room-only audience in Basil Auditorium on the Pittsford campus of St. John Fisher College. The auditorium was filled with college students, farmworker advocates, Wayne County farmers — including the president of the Wayne County Farm Bureau — and members of the Diocese of Rochester’s migrant ministries and Catholic Charities agencies.

"It was pretty overwhelming to me that so many people came," Ghertner later told the Catholic Courier.

"After I Pick the Fruit" follows the lives of five female farmworkers from 2000 through 2010. Although all five women are in the same profession, each woman’s story and circumstances — including legal status — are different. Vierge and Maria entered the country legally; Vierge to escape political persecution in her native Haiti, and Maria to find a better life for herself and her husband than they could find in Mexico. For years both followed the seasonal harvests from Florida to New York and back, but several years ago Maria and her husband and children settled in Florida and found work outside the farmworker stream.

Soledad, Elisa and Lorena all crossed the border from Mexico to the United States without documentation and soon found work for themselves and their husbands picking fruit. Soledad and her husband worked at the same western New York farm for nine years, but in 2006 they became anxious about an increasing number of local raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and decided to move back to Mexico with their two young sons.

Elisa and her husband, meanwhile, had been working in Wayne County for several years before he was deported after an early-morning raid in front of the local grocery store. Although Elisa misses him terribly, she decided to remain in America with the couple’s two American-born children because she doesn’t believe the family can survive in Mexico. Lorena also suffered a similar heartbreak. She and her husband worked on a local farm and became very involved in Wayne County’s Hispanic Catholic community and the Farmworker Women’s Institute, but in 2006 her husband was detained on the way to a farmworker conference in Philadelphia and was later deported.

Over time Ghertner gained the five women’s trust, and as she did so she progressed from simply interviewing them in the fields to being invited into their homes to witness personal moments with their families. She traveled to Mexico with Soledad and her family and recorded the woman’s anxiety on the way to Mexico, as well as the tears she shed upon returning to her homeland. She filmed Vierge attending citizenship classes and captured the woman’s joy when she became an American citizen.

Ghertner planned to wrap up filming in 2005 or 2006, but around that time the Department of Homeland Security increased U.S. Border Patrol activity in the area and life changed for farmworker families, she said.

"It prevented people from continuing on the path of their lives. It just stopped dead. People that may have moved out of farm work, they had to stay in farm work," she said.

Ghertner decided to continue filming the women’s lives amid the new climate of fear and documented the community’s response, including the formation of the Church Watch group at Church of the Epiphany in Sodus. Group members, she said, stood outside the church and kept watch for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents while undocumented farmworkers attended Mass inside.

Filming ended months ago, but the women’s stories still are being written. In many ways these women are no different than you or I, Ghertner said, explaining that she hopes "After I Pick the Fruit" will help people in the broader community become aware of farmworkers in their midst and recognize ways their lives are similar to those of the farmworkers.

"I hope the people that have no contact with real immigrants, if they see this film will realize that they’re not aliens," Ghertner said. "I really feel like spending time with the women and their stories can perhaps allow us to look at our own communities and who in our own communities might need support."

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