Narsiso Martinez is Painting the Plight of Farmworkers | Civil Eats
Narsiso Martinez's work,

Narsiso Martinez is Painting the Plight of Farmworkers

The artivist spent years as a farmworker to pay for his education. Now, he’s earning greater acclaim while speaking out about the injustices that food workers face.

As a child in Oaxaca, Mexico, Narsiso Martinez loved drawing, but he never dreamed he’d grow up to become a professional artist. And he almost didn’t. The 43-year-old spent years working as a farmworker to pay for his education and pursue an art career. Now, he’s an acclaimed artist based in Long Beach, California, and his striking portraits of agricultural workers have largely propelled him to success.

Filled with mixed media works featuring farmworkers, produce boxes, and agricultural landscapes, Martinez’s portfolio has earned comparisons to the social realism movement of the 1930s. The artist also feels a connection to 19th-century painters such as Vincent van Gogh and Jean-François Millet, both of whom painted peasants and rural landscapes. But Martinez’s biggest influence remains his experience as a farmworker in Washington state, a job that exposed him to the grueling labor farmworkers perform—typically without recognition or labor protections—since so many are undocumented.

Born in 1977 to Zapotec parents, Martinez moved to the United States at age 20 without a high school education. Over the next two decades, he obtained a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, and, finally, a master’s degree in fine arts from California State University, Long Beach in 2018. That year, he celebrated his first solo show, “Farm Fresh,” held at the Long Beach Museum of Art. The next year, the museum featured his exhibition, “Friends in Freshness,” which included three-dimensional displays of his former colleagues.

Narsiso Martinez. (Photo credit: Ryan Sanchez)

Narsiso Martinez. (Photo credit: Ryan Sanchez)

Today, Martinez’s work has been exhibited globally by institutions and organizations including the National Immigration Law Center; the Mexican Center for Culture and Cinematic Arts of the Consulate General of Mexico; Art Space Purl gallery in Daegu, South Korea; the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery; and the CSULB University Art Museum. Ultimately, he intends to spark a dialogue about the relationship between field workers and the agricultural industry.

Most recently, Martinez’s work was featured in the Billboard Creative’s spring exhibition, which showcased pieces by 30 artists on billboards across Los Angeles. In July, he will participate in an outdoor exhibition organized by the Torrance Art Museum in Southern California.

Martinez spoke with Civil Eats about his art, education, career, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn unprecedented media attention to the contributions of food and farm workers.

Your determination to get an education is incredibly inspiring. What motivated you to keep pursuing your education despite the challenges you faced?

It really was about setting goals. Growing up, I didn’t have role models. My father had a fourth-grade education. I got kicked out of high school in ninth grade for failing too many classes. When I came to the U.S., I wanted to go to school and learn the language, because I wanted to know what the songs were about. In ESL school, my teachers were really encouraging. I realized that I was capable of doing the work, so I signed up for the high school program, and it took a long time because nobody was funding it. I was doing it on my own. and sometimes my schedule would change. But I never stopped, and I graduated from high school in 2006. I wanted to break the cycle in my family. At one point, it became not just for me but for everyone else—my family, my nieces, and nephews.

Three years later, you graduated from Los Angeles City College (LACC). There, you took an art history class where you studied Vincent van Gogh. How did he inspire you to center farmworkers in your art?

When I took an art history class at LACC, I came across these van Gogh paintings. Obviously, the colors were really attractive, but I also learned that he was inspired by Millet, who painted peasants, and it really reminded me of growing up in my community. And I was like, “Okay, I want to go to grad school and do paintings like this.” That was the beginning of it.

The rural environment van Gogh and Millet captured wasn’t just a reminder of your childhood, since as an adult you worked in the fields.

We would work from 1 a.m. to 3 p.m. I was annoyed to get a paycheck at the end of the week that was just a few hundred dollars. I was like, “Really? I don’t think I’m going to make enough to pay for college with his money.”

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I read one old interview where you described picking asparagus as a farmworker, and some of the injustices you faced doing so.

I was working very early in the morning when it was very dark. We had spotlights on our heads, and there were certain tricks that the farmworkers used to make sure the asparagus was the right length. If [it wasn’t], the asparagus was counted as trash, and the weight was discounted from the amount we would get paid. But I discovered that [those smaller pieces] were preserved. They put them in jars or something like that, and it would still make a profit for the company, which annoyed me. I didn’t know if they would fire me or retaliate against me if I spoke up, which is traditionally what happens.

Narsiso Martinez's work, Mastering Under the Glass, 2020. Ink, Gouache, and Charcoal on produce Cardboard Box. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

“Mastering Under the Glass, 2020.” Ink, Gouache, and Charcoal on produce Cardboard Box. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Can you give some examples of retaliation farmworkers face?

Based on my experience, if you speak up, they might not fire you on the spot, but they will tell you there is no more work. Because a lot of these people work seasonally, they’ll keep an eye on you, and the next season when it’s time to pick the harvest, they will say, “I’m sorry, we don’t need any more workers.” It’s kind of scary when it is your only source of income.

You’ve sometimes been labeled as “too political.” Given the climate of the country today, has that changed? Are you now celebrated for highlighting farmworkers?

A lot of that would come out in critiques and conversations we had in class when I was an art student. At first, I was trying to defend [my work], like, “This is nothing bad. This is just me and what I experienced.” But I realized [that my art] is political because as a minority, as an immigrant, as a migrant worker, as a foreign worker, work is political. Then, I realized that farmworkers need to be highlighted.  Some people say I’m an art-ivist or an activist, which is cool; I don’t mind those labels. The fact that I now create this work that includes all of these social issues that are embedded in our communities, that makes it, for me, even more valuable.

Your art also incorporates produce boxes. How did that start?

When I was an undergrad, I went to see a show that had a couple of paintings on cardboard, which I thought was pretty interesting and beautifully done. After I graduated, I started doing sketches on cardboard, and it was pretty satisfactory to rub the charcoal in the cardboard. When I came back for the graduate program, I started painting on oil on canvas again. I was trying to paint landscapes, but I would paint farmworkers here and there because I wanted to know how I could address these differences of lifestyle between the orchard owners and the farmworkers. Then, I went to visit my brother, and he sent me to Costco to go get pizza, and there was a pile of boxes lying around. One that really got my attention was a banana box. I took it to my studio, drew on the box, and showed it to my art class, and the response was really positive. I started doing multiple compositions and collages of boxes and sculptural pieces, and that’s how it all started.

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Given the long journey you took to become an artist, how did it feel to start taking part in art shows?

I felt a great sense of accomplishment. My first show at a museum felt like a breakthrough. As a person of color, as an Indigenous person, I’ve been struggling throughout my life to even have an education. Breaking those barriers felt like I was doing something not only for myself but sort of setting an example to others.

“Artisan Organics, 2020.” Ink, Gouache, Charcoal, and Matte Gel on Produce Cardboard Box. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

During the pandemic, food and farmworkers received unprecedented media attention after being ignored for too long. How do you feel about this shift?

I didn’t have to go farther than my social media pages, where people were sharing the news, to realize this was happening. People were cheering the farmworkers and bringing them mariachis and tacos and food, and I think it was great. It’s amazing. One of the things that I questioned, though, is what’s going to happen after the pandemic. Farmworkers are really struggling to survive, so hopefully more people are going to speak up and organize. In many states, people—who are usually afraid of speaking up—are organizing, protesting, and demanding better wages, better protection of women. I’m glad they are taking matters into their own hands to demand change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nadra Nittle is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and About.com. Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. She is the author of Toni Morrison's Spiritual Vision: Faith, Folktales, and Feminism in Her Life and Literature. Read more >

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  1. Inspiring interview.
  2. Bett B
    I'm very inspired by Narsiso Martinez's work.

    I have a technical question, in case Mr. Martinez ever sees it, about the archival qualities or lack thereof of the boxes. It would be too bad to see such lovely and important work fall apart over time.

    Do you address this in your process? Is there a way to de-acidify the cardboard, and do you seal it?

    If longevity of your works is an issue for you, would it seem all right, or would it feel inauthentic, to recreate the boxes from more archival and long-lived materials?

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