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Local filmmaker shows farmworker documentary

By: Todd Etshman//November 2, 2011

Local filmmaker shows farmworker documentary

By: Todd Etshman//November 2, 2011

Immigrant farmworkers in Wayne County are the focus of a documentary showing tonight at RIT’s Basil Hall. Matthew Rosenberg

St. John Fisher College’s Office of Multicultural Affairs & Diversity Programs continues its yearlong immigration theme with a documentary on Wayne County farmworkers. The film, “After I Pick the Fruit,” is showing at 6 p.m. today at RIT’s Basil Hall and is free and open to the public.

Created by Sodus resident and former Rochester Institute of Technology Assistant Professor Nancy Ghertner the documentary follows the lives of five local immigrant farmworker women over a 10-year period.

“Initially I wanted to portray the human side of workers lives in the orchards, but I quickly ran into all their problems,” Ghertner said of the project she started even before she fully committed to documenting it in 2001.

Approximately 68,000 immigrant farmworkers from Mexico, Haiti and other countries work for Wayne County and Finger Lakes area farmers to harvest a host of crops including apples, pears, peaches, cherries, grapes, onions, potatoes, melons and more.

“My goal was to make this invisible world visible, to bring to light the struggles of those workers who put food on our tables,” Ghertner explained. “Their attitude is: We’re not doing anything wrong, we’re doing the work that needs to be done.”

Sodus residents are accustomed to contact with the farmworkers in their community and their stores. Unfortunately, they’ve also become accustomed to seeing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and roadblocks, too.

Two raids are chronicled in the film. Ghertner said ICE raids are common in November when farmers don’t need the workers as much.

“The fear these people have is huge,” Ghertner said. “They have an innate fear of the police and their kids walk around with their heads down. It affects everyone.”

Breaking up families is one of the saddest aspects of immigration enforcement Ghertner encountered. Two of the women had their husbands deported, and the documentary includes their emotional pain.

Ghertner realized she’d have to assign pseudonyms to several women shortly after the project started when the United States began aggressively pursuing undocumented aliens post-9/11.

“Despite that, the women chose to put hope above fear, and continued with the film,” she said.

Like Ghertner, Yantee Slobert wants students, staff, faculty and the public to be aware of the immigrants’ struggles and develop a better understanding of the challenges they face. Slobert is director of St. John Fisher’s Office of Multicultural Affairs & Diversity Programs.

“I want them to see how immigration affects their daily lives and what’s being said about the issue,” Slobert said. “I want them to see where they get their food from and find out about jobs like this that they aren’t going to college to do when they graduate. Our students will be voting and hopefully making a difference in our world.”

The documentary shows that immigration issues aren’t confined to the southern border of the United States — there is more than a monetary price to be paid for food, there is also a human price to be paid in bringing food to the table of area residents.

It’s especially relevant because it’s happening right here in Western New York, Slobert said.

Before speaking at St. John Fisher in early October, Albany Law School Professor Paul Finkelman spent time interviewing local farmworkers about their plight and urged reform measures be made to allow farmworkers to perform their jobs without fear of apprehension.

The current guest worker program doesn’t work well for small farmers who can’t afford to pay 40-hour work weeks, transportation and licensing fees, Ghertner said.

Ghertner said she had the cooperation of sympathetic area farmers in making the documentary.

Immigrant workers commonly work with the same farmer year after year.

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