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UC Merced Library Hosts Opening Reception for Farmworker Movement Exhibit

April 10, 2023
Demonstrators hold up United Farm Workers flags while marching.
"Building a New Future: Art and Activism in the Central Valley" is on display through July 28. Photo by George Ballis.

The UC Merced Library is hosting an opening reception for a new art exhibit that showcases the farmworker movement in the Central Valley through the lens of the late photographer and labor activist George Ballis.

"Building a New Future: Art and Activism in the Central Valley" is on display on the library's second floor through July 28. The exhibit documents housing and working conditions in the Valley beginning in the 1950s, and chronicles farm labor organizing efforts by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, National Farm Workers Association and United Farm Workers (UFW).

The exhibit features key moments of the farmworker movement but also cultural and community-based elements, including the work of El Teatro Campesino. Founded in 1965 on the Delano grape strike picket lines of the UFW, the Farmworker's Theater produced short skits on flatbed trucks and in union halls to dramatize the plight and cause of farmworkers.

In 2022, the UC Merced Library acquired more than 31,000 photographs by Ballis. His images, which include key figures such as César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, are part of the largest body of work by a photographer covering the farmworker movement.

The narrative power of Ballis' images served to catalyze support for the movement and provide a historical lens to consider how people came together to enact change.

"We got a lot of power. We can do a lot of things, if we just go out and do them," Ballis said in a 1979 interview. "A lot of folks do not use their power not because they are afraid, but because they don't want to accept the responsibility for freedom."

The opening reception is set for Thursday, April 13, at 5 p.m. on the library's second floor. The event is free, and all are welcome to attend.

Farmworker hold up picket signs during a march.
These images are part of the largest body of work by a photographer covering the farmworker movement. Photo by George Ballis.

Following the reception will be a conversation with Agustín Lira, singer, songwriter, director and co-founder of El Teatro Campesino, at 6:30 p.m. in Classroom and Office Building 1, room 116.

Lira first met Ballis on the picket line as the photographer was clicking away.

"We, the members of El Teatro Campesino, were extremely lucky to form a very close relationship with him and almost right away he began photographing our performances, cataloguing all our movements as we moved from one stage to another, or in the fields on the back of flatbed trucks, or for special union functions or campaigns, or during the march to Sacramento," Lira said. "George had something special about him and the way he captured the people involved in the struggle, he seemed to catch the heart and soul of that precise moment that mattered the most, translating it into powerful emotions that move and change whoever views his work today."

Lira was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2007 and the California Arts Council Legacy Award in 2022. He has taught theater, music and creative writing in academic, community and arts organizations throughout California. His most recent recording is "Songs of Struggle and Hope."

The event will also include a selection of songs performed by Lira and Patricia Wells. The two have worked together since 1979 and toured nationally.

Literature Professor Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez will moderate the discussion.

"This event reminds us of the important role that our very own Central Valley played in the fight for social justice, as well as in developing a Chicano ethics and aesthetics during the 1960s and 1970s," Martín-Rodríguez said. "It is wonderful to see the Ballis collection find a home at UC Merced, and a distinct honor to host the visit of Agustín Lira, a legendary figure who remains firmly rooted in the Valley."

As part of the events surrounding the exhibit, the Center for the Humanities will host a Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities with Activist Dolores Huerta on Monday, May 1. The lecture will take place at 5:30 p.m. in Classroom and Office Building 1, room 102, followed by an exhibit reception on the library's second floor at 6:30 p.m. Anyone interested in attending should register online.

More information about the exhibit can be found on the library's webpage.