How one organization is helping underprivileged youths showcase their cultures through art

For Liliana Asencio, moving three times a year had become commonplace. After her father left the family 10 years ago, her mother, a migrant worker, was left to care for 7-year-old Asencio and three younger siblings. Living in Tennessee for seven months out of a year, in Mexico for four months and in Florida for a month, before beginning the cycle again once the working season started in Tennessee, it became hard for the now 17-year old to lead a "normal" life.

After realizing the instability was harming the children, Asencio’s mother decided to continue the seasonal jobs on her own and keep her kids in Tennessee with their grandmother, who lived at a worker’s camp and got up at 4 a.m. to make flour tortillas and food for the worker’s daily packed lunches.

"Trying to keep up with school was the hardest; because of all the moving, what I should have learned in fourth and fifth grade I didn’t learn ‘till sixth,” the Mexican-American teen said. “I stopped moving and … it was hard not having my mom around. There were so many things that she missed and so many things I wish she could have helped me with as a kid.”

Asencio’s story is not uncommon but often unheard. With the issues of immigration taking center stage around the country, however, more and more community organizations are giving counsel, English classes and even legal services to families like Asencio’s. But other groups try to focus on the opportunities available for those working for the American dream.

One of those organizations is Telamon Corporation: Tennessee Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (TMSHS), who developed Growing Tennessee: Rural Youth Cultivate Common Ground. Their project allows Asencio and other children of Appalachian and migrant workers to take courses like outdoor cooking classes, nature studies, autobiographical writing and hiking to provide a sense of community belonging. The group’s latest initiative, Photography by Children of Migrant Farm Workers, received an overwhelming response.

Through photography, the children, who range in age from 11 to 17, exhibited their daily lives. The images were displayed, starting July 6, at The Art Gallery of Knoxville and gained statewide interest.

Eventually, nationwide curiosity grew to the point where Reuters featured one of the Asencio’s photographs in their New York Times Square electronic billboard earlier in July.

"We never thought our pictures would make it so far; we never thought the gallery would even show them, but we are so happy they did,” Asencio said. “[This project] helps us show people that we are not stereotypes. We want to be better.”

Although the youngsters face difficulties like extreme poverty, lack of healthcare, overcrowded housing, scarce educational resources and few low-paying jobs, TMSHS leaders say that focusing on positive aspects can make dealing with life easier

"This began as an initiative to serve the older children and help them feel that they belong in a community…they have the responsibilities of caring for younger siblings and run the risk of working in the fields themselves,” said Jane Crowe, program development coordinator for TMSHS. “It developed, however, into a way of bringing two cultures together and fostering the desire for staying in school, for wanting to go to college and for having dreams."

TMSHS started its activities in 2005 with funds from the Administration on Children, Youth, & Families, and the support of Head Start and 4-H . This year, thanks to a $10,000 grant form the Starbucks Foundation, TMSHS was able to purchase cameras and film, and pay its instructors.

The children learned photography skills, appropriate use of lighting and film developing from professional photographers of the area. The exhibition was shown as a Gallery collaboration with sound artist Glenn Weyant — who, for 20 years, has used art to transform the U.S. – Mexico border with The Anta Project.

In Weyant’s presentation a series of recordings were mixed to create a single "sonic collage" of the border near Nogales, Ariz. The instruments chosen for the sounds were objects found in the desert and "played" on the border’s wall; the sound of wind, helicopters and leaking water jugs were also used in the mix.

"Instead of being an implement of division, the wall becomes an instrument of creation with the power to unite," said Weyant in his Web site. "By turning the 3-mile long steel wall that separates the U.S. from Mexico into a sprawling electro-acoustic instrument, my goal was to deconstruct its purpose and sonically prod the listener into a line of inquiry… Why do these things exist? Who is kept in and who is kept out?"

As a result of the project, several children have realized that success is possible with patience and hard work, and their ambitions have grown, according to Crowe. Many of the children involved in the project are now thinking of higher education.

"These children inspire me,” Crowe said. “They and their families can do so much with so little that I hope people realize their importance and decide to help as we have tried to. Right now they may not know what ‘portfolio’ means but they are talented and want to study more so, we will do whatever possible to help them get scholarships or donations to make it happen."

Crowe also reminds people that the project helped to unify the Appalachian and migrant worker families. She found it interesting to see that family values and resilience were common in these two groups, recalling a gathering where people shared corn bread, beans, soup and tortillas without regard to differing cultural roots.

"It is a strong support group that looks at the commonality of being human beings instead of looking at the differences of everything else," Crowe added.

While looking for more sponsorship, TMSHS officials are considering organizing a tour for the photographs to be displayed nationally. They are also planning additional photography classes and the creation of a Web site about the project, as well as trying to expand the project to their Alamo site for 20 new rural youths. For their part, Asencio and her fellow group mates are enjoying the rest of summer, marveling at the attention they have received.

"To those who have parents that are farm workers I’d say don’t be embarrassed or intimidated by those who mock you. It is a wonderful experience." expressed Asencio. "My mom is my inspiration to be someone in life because she has taught me that women don’t have to depend on anybody or any man to make it on their own. My desire to go to college and participate in programs like this is to show people who don’t understand our culture or the way we live that we aren’t bad. I don’t want to be another girl who doesn’t go to college or make a difference in the world if I have a chance to."

About The Author

Bessie King is a Blast contributing editor. She can be reached at [email protected]

2 Responses

  1. Jorja Cummings

    that is so awesome that people are giving these kids a chance to grow and find some form of creative expression. i hope more people will be inspired to offer something to these migrant workers and their families for a change and start to open our doors and our hearts (and our borders) to them. their families work so hard and put the food on the table for each and every one of us. thanks for covering this story!

  2. Kara Kahley

    This article is great, just like the photography program.

    Liliana & other students: You are awesome! Keep taking wonderful photos!


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