Pulling Back the Curtain on Migrant Women’s Lives

Originally published in the Lakeshore News
By Mike Costanza

Camera in hand, Sodus resident and independent filmmaker Nancy Ghertner set out to depict the lives of five migrant women who labored in the fields and orchards in and around Wayne County. For 10 years, Ghertner followed those women as they struggled to fulfill their roles as workers, wives and mothers behind a curtain of community isolation that rendered them nearly invisible to all around them. “After I Pick the Fruit”, her feature-length documentary film, premiers this week.

Nancy Ghertner

Independent filmmaker and longtime Sodus resident Nancy Ghertner set sup a video shot. “After I Pick the Fruit”, Ghertner’s feature-length documentary, presents the lives of five women who immigrated to the US to work in the fields and orchards in and around Wayne County.

Ghertner’s work pulls back the curtain on the lives of Lorena, Vierge, Maria, Soledad and Elisa. Though the 93-minute film begins and ends in Sodus, it also includes footage taken in Chilapa de Diaz, Mexico, the Texas-Mexico border, Florida orange groves, the Capitol Building in Albany, and most importantly, the homes of her subjects.

Four of the women are from Mexico, and one is from Haiti. Since three of the women came to this country without documentation, they appear in the film under pseudonyms.
Ghertner, a former faculty member of the Rochester Institute of Technology School of Film and Animation, became curious about the lives of the migrant laborers she encountered back in the 1980s at local stores or businesses in Sodus, or at local festivals.

“They’d come to these couple of events, and then recede into the farms,” she says. “They were invisible to me as people.”

Back then, most of the migrant workers she encountered were men who spoke little English, Ghertner says. As a woman who spoke little Spanish, she did not feel comfortable approaching them.

By the fall of 2000, women had begun to appear amongst those working in local farms and orchards.
Ghertner says she began to wonder what their lives were like after their workdays ended. With the permission of some of Sodus’s apple growers, she began taking still photographs of some of the women who were picking apples.

“I was very interested in how they could do the hard work,” she says.

The women were eager talk to her, Ghertner says, and she returned in 2001 to begin filming. Ghertner says the film focuses upon its subjects as they perform the many tasks of wives and mothers while working 10 and 12-hour days, seven days a week in a foreign land. All this occurs against the backdrop of the major theme of “After I Pick the Fruit” — the isolation such women feel.

Picking Apples

A woman picks apples in a still shot from “After I Pick the Fruit”, Nancy Ghertner’s feature-length documentary about lives of five women who immigrated to the US to work in the fields and orchards in and around Wayne County.

Lack of the ability to speak English often compounds that isolation — Lorena, for example, speaks only Spanish. She and her husband came to the North Rose area from Mexico in 2000. Though they lacked the documentation they needed to come to this country legally, they were drawn by the chance to earn better wages than they could earn in their native land, and the opportunity to make a better life. After arriving, they came to know few people outside those they met in the fields, at the church they attended, or at the day care to which they took their children.

“We know nobody; we don’t have a family,” Lorena says in Spanish, through an interpreter.

When the picking seasons ended, they’d find other work— Lorena says she has labored in a local packing house and pruned fruit trees in the off season. As they labored, the couple constantly guarded against detection by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The pressure grew worse for all local migrant workers after 9/11, Ghertner says, when the federal government cracked down on undocumented immigration.

“It’s been relentless,” she says.

Lorena and her husband continued to labor together until 2006, when ICE agents arrested him and he was deported. She now arises at 5 or 5:30 a.m. most morning to get her children ready for day care and prepare for a workday that can end at 7 p.m. Without her husband, the days are harder.

“It is difficult for the family,” Lorena says. “We need him.”

While government pressure on local migrant laborers has increased, Ghertner says the farmers she has spoken to have generally been supportive. Kenneth Van De Walle, co-owner of Van de Walle fruit Farms in Williamson, spoke admiringly of the migrants who have worked his orchards.

“Because they want to make something of their lives by working hard, they get what they earn,” Van de Walle says. “We treated their kids and treated them just like as if they were family.”

Through her film, Ghertner hopes to bring such “invisible” elements of migrant workers’ lives to her audiences.

“I really hope that they understand a little bit more about how our food is grown,” she says.