After The Wildfires: Artist Captures Plight Of Napa’s Undocumented Workers

Arleene Correa Valencia works on a painting in her latest series: In Times of Crisis, En Tiempo de Crisis. CREDIT: RACHAEL BONGIORNO/NPR
Arleene Correa Valencia works on a painting in her latest series: In Times of Crisis, En Tiempo de Crisis. CREDIT: RACHAEL BONGIORNO/NPR

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BY RACHAEL BONGIORNO

When wildfires ripped through California’s Napa Valley in October 2017, local artist Arleene Correa Valencia was shocked to hear that farm workers were continuing to work in the vineyards — even as smoke surrounded the area, and the locals were evacuating.

Outraged, Correa turned to her art — painting — to highlight the dangerous conditions in which immigrant workers, particularly undocumented ones, are forced to labor. She took photos of the scene to create oil paintings, which are the focus of her upcoming series, En Tiempo de Crisis, In Times of Crisis.

Standing on the edge of a manicured vineyard on Silverado Road, the main road of Napa Valley’s world-renowned wineries, Correa recalls what she saw as the fires raged.

“The moon was out, it was red orange, highlighted by the fires, it was something out of a movie, it was beautiful,” says Correa. “But underneath all that, there were people, and they were not safe. They were hustling up and down these long stretches of vineyard, just running to save the grape.”

Correa was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and raised in Napa Valley. Now 24, she is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — the program that allows undocumented immigrants brought here as children to live and work in the U.S legally. Growing up, she experienced firsthand the contradictions of living in a wealthy area as an undocumented immigrant.

“My parents, two siblings and I shared a two-bedroom apartment with 16 people,” says Correa. “We lived in this tiny little place and everybody there were my uncles, my aunts, my cousins. Everybody was just working so that we could all pay rent collectively.”

Many of her family members worked in the vineyards. Immigrants play a crucial role in the Napa economy, making up a majority of the 55,000 people employed by its wine industry.

In one of Correa's oil paintings, a woman harvesting grapes at night ties a bandana around her mouth and nose to protect herself from the smoke permeating the fields. CREDIT: RACHAEL BONGIORNO/NPR

In one of Correa’s oil paintings, a woman harvesting grapes at night ties a bandana around her mouth and nose to protect herself from the smoke permeating the fields. CREDIT: RACHAEL BONGIORNO/NPR