The following essay was written by Victor Martinez, the late bard of the Mission.
Harvesting Hope: A View Of Juana Alicia’s Mural “Las Lechugueras.”
An Essay by Victor Martinez, Originally published as a monograph by the Galeria de la Raza, 1984.
1999 Winner of the National Book Award for Parrot in the Oven
On York Street in San Francisco’s Mission District there is a somewhat
ennobling mural of lettuce pickers by the artist Juana Alicia called, Las
Lechugueras (The Women Who Pick Lettuce). Whenever I pass it on the sidewalk,
I pause to look closely at a detail that had not seized my interest before.
There is a grasping, adhesive quality in this painting of brusque clouds
issuing out between bands of earth and sky. Everything about the mural has a
luminous wonder: the ballooning clouds, the lyrical suppleness of the women
workers, the Immigration and Nationalization Service car crouching at the
border of the lettuce field like a lion ready to spring, all convey an
intensity that surprises the eye with an abrasive, almost scathing glare.
(The thought of one’s retinae staunched with a fist of hot sand comes readily
to mind, especially in the late afternoon when the western sun is slanting
hard on it.)
But it is the high-cheekboned, semi-oval faces of the lettuce pickers which
command one’s attention. Their shoulders move in arching swings as they
deftly cut the stalks of lettuce. They have an attractive mixture of
Caucasian and Asian features (their skin light like norteños but the nose
and eyes angular as in indigenous people farther south, around Oaxaca,
Mexico). They have an agile muscularity as well, not in the sense of a
weight-lifter’s sculpted curves, but more like the smooth and subtly powerful
shoulders of breast-stroke swimmers.
The smoothness of their features is accentuated by their outfits, which
appear gauzy, almost ephemeral — shirt and pants fit loose, like the soft
white manta cotton worn by rural peasants and mountain Indians in Mexico,
only much lighter and tissue thin. Their clothes are cast about their bodies
as though a shrug away from falling; their feet seem hardly to touch the
earth. One of the women is wearing a scarf which workers use to protect skin
and lungs from the ravages of sun and dust. But here the fabric offers
little protection. It is transparent, allowing easy visibility to the
tangerine-brown eyes and eagle nose. Another woman beside her has a baby
fetus nestled inside her pregnant belly, which can be seen through her shirt
like the echo-image of a sonogram.
But why do these colossal women seem to be floating? Why do their clothes
appear so penetrable?
There are many subtle ambiguities in Las Lechugueras. Perhaps the most
pronounced is the yellow crop-duster careening above the workers. It looks
like a replica of an innocent balsa model any child could buy at a local
hobby store. Yet hardly a plaything, it spews jets of green pesticide down
from its toy like wings with such fierceness the spray dissipates into a
rapturous radiance. The airplane is turning, its cylindrical underbelly
departing into billowy clouds that remind one of the alcohol-soaked cotton
used to taxidermize insects.
Essentially, most of Juana Alicia’s murals are mixtures of natural and
magical realism. As such, they are readable as a narrative through the
associations between the imagery. The need for a tangible reality to be
visually apparent is not a prerequisite, but when one gazes at the
pesticide’s shafts of light, as well the entrancing touches of sepia and
rustic colors which enhance the overall candescence of the mural, one
questions why this mural presents the dangerous and gritty reality of
fieldwork with such phantasmic beauty.
Artwork designed to make the viewer politically aware of an injustice must
often first satisfy the viewer’s willingness to accept the artist’s
interpretation of that injustice. In the U.S., where “committed” or “martyr”
art is often condescended to, accustomed apathy, the refinements of
rationalized guilt and the obstinate feeling that one is being coerced into
responding often turn the viewer away from politically motivated art. But in
Las Lechugueras, the viewer’s contemplation of the mural proves more complex.
Among the glowing richness of color and flurry of paint, the blissful
expressions of the workers defy easy explanation. The apparent drudgery the
workers are performing hardly looks unpleasant. Poison is falling all around
them, operating almost as a threat of erasure, and yet their long languorous
eyes convey a merry softness. To regale injustice may well have been the
purpose of Las Lechugueras, but when one looks at it, one realizes that it is
much too “pretty” for that.
The result is confusion, and it seems to gather in the faces of the women
fieldworkers. Their “looks” allow the viewer no refuge into pity, no
response of anger, indignation, or even awkward impotence. They deny any
invitation toward sympathy, toward a need to pass judgment or denounce
institutional injustice. One’s responses are arrested and held in abeyance,
not by unwillingness on the part of the viewer, but because of the
paradoxical nature of the imagery.
And why is this so? Because when looking closely, the viewer notices that
none of the lettuce has been packaged — the workers themselves have no store
of them in the sacks — and that, in fact, no true harvest is taking place;
not for the workers picking the lettuce, nor for those doing the packaging.
Without a harvest, wage-labor has no purpose, no hope of completion. Rather
than depicting a bountiful crop, Las Lechugueras depicts a wondrously lit
Another paradox has to do with the purpose of the labor. To find a purpose
to labor, the distance of time and of space must be explained pictorially.
The distance a worker covers over a stretch of row often determines the value
of the labor. It is what puts the worker authentically within the context of
her surroundings. From a fieldworker’s perspective, the horizon induces a
sense of elongated exhaustion. Anyone who has worked in a field laid out in
rows will tell you this. The vanishing point where the row ends is where one
often directs one’s yearning for respite.
Yet in Las Lechugueras distance is obstructed. The rows appear to be severed,
and the horizon shut off by a current of foothills and enveloping clouds. It
is an abbreviated horizon, with clouds that appear locked under a vault of
muted, blue sky, which acts like a plug over everything, lending the mural a
This strange abridgement of the horizon is a marked departure from other
Juana Alicia murals, as for example, Basta Los Fuegos (Enough of Guns) on
Mission Street not more than ten city blocks from Las Lechugueras. Here the
contrasts are clear. Mountainous scenery and a rush of flora occupy a
distant horizon. The background offers an idyllic promise of what could be;
the ominous grey images of guns in the foreground present the violence of
Every image in Las Lechugueras, on the other hand, has been pushed to the
foreground. Sky, clouds, crop-duster, earth, car, and women are placed in
such a way that the spectator receives them all in one peripheral sweep. By
sealing the field rows and preventing the horizon from expanding off into the
distance, the pictorial plane flattens, creating a visual closure which
restricts narrative by making it almost a one-dimensional collage.
Curiously, the mural becomes abstract in both texture and depth. What should
be solid is rendered weightless, what is distant is brought near.
What we see in Las Lechugueras is that Juana Alicia creates a peculiar mixture
of nearness and distance, freedom and entrapment, beauty and crime. It is
what makes the mural so enigmatic and compelling. Powerful economic forces
are placing these women in danger, yet the ornamental extravagance of the
mural prevents the recognition that a crime is being committed.
One searches for clues to this dilemma by looking at the faces to see how
they are responding to the danger. They appear oblivious to what is
happening; there’s no horror or panic; the faces look curiously complacent.
One could mistake these expressions as born either as an indomitable attitude
that says, While the worst is happening, we will endure, or a pathetic
ignorance that says, There is no poison, the spraying is absolutely safe.
Studies over the last twenty years on the harmful effects of pesticides make
both these attitudes ludicrous.
On further scrutiny, one finds the look these women express as actually one
of optimism, which is at first difficult to comprehend, since given the
context of danger, this is so patently absurd. These looks nonetheless have
become markedly familiar in the United States, and that is why they are so
recognizable. They are the looks both Ronald Reagan and George Bush often
used during the 1980’s when addressing the American people. They are the
also the looks of many of those same people who, when they wish, dwell in
blissful separation. Much like their leaders, they express their awareness
of crisis on the borders of a cheerful smile, cultivated by a selective
memory which glides from one daily newspaper headline to another, avoiding
conflict and doubt, and always remaining clear of the ill-effects of
commiserating over disaster.
Benign detachment of this sort, by extension, also surrounds almost every
ecological and foreign policy decision. We give the world a Reaganesque
smile, a George Bush farewell, a Clinton assurance. Other than confronting
the crisis and seeking a solution, we seem as a nation to be content to
plunge deeper into disengagement, where every social and economic fiasco
turns into an agreeable, floating affair.
As could be seen in, Las Lechugueras, when both avenues of the past and future
are sealed, people appear to be drifting, unprepared to ground themselves
enough to create a necessary unity. Looks like this give the erosion of
awareness a sense of purpose. And this is what Juana Alicia’s mural shows:
how ludicrous this look appears. But events soon catch up, as they always
do, and with each new toxin introduced into our environment, a little more of
that naiveté corrodes the cosmetic of that smile.
That is when hope appears, for after disengagement always comes the promise
of hope. And this is what Las Lechugueras recovers, a promise, or vision of
Hope, which is not one of delayed gratification and perpetually suspended
attainment, but one wrenched away from its place out there in the distance
and brought to the front. Unlike the mural, Alto al Fuego, where Hope is
expressed as abrupt mountains commanding the heights, in Las Lechugueras, Hope
is given no distance over which one’s eye may cross to attain it. It is
right there, immediate and possible, where it can no longer be obscured by
benign neglect but contemplated and decided upon once and for all.
By presenting, as visually stunning, the moment when something catastrophic
is happening, Juana Alicia made Hope as present in our lives as in the lives
of those women who sacrifice their health so that we may eat. They are what
Hope looks like, optimistic and light, offering a smile both alluring and
full of delay. These women lettuce pickers are a reminder of the need for
one to act, to perhaps take one by the hand and help lead her, and oneself,
out of danger and into tomorrow.