Writing by SAF interns and alumni

Writing and reflection has always been an integral part of SAF’s documentary program. In addition to recording interviews and making photographs, our students write field notes and narrative essays as a way to process and reflect on their documentary experiences. A collection of intern and alumni writing is below.

I Could See Myself In Them | Podía verme en ellos

Dissertation by Julie Wilson, 1993 SAF alumni

In the pages that follow, you will read excerpts from accounts of college students who interned with SAF between 1995 and 2005. These excerpts come from documentary projects that interns completed with farmworkers about folklife traditions, and from weekly journals that interns wrote and turned in to the internship coordinator. I read all of this written work as part of a dissertation study I completed with SAF as a graduate student in UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education.

I studied the students’ work in order to understand what they felt as they allied themselves with farmworkers who were trying to secure basic, yet amazingly tenuous, human rights: safe working conditions, livable homes, basic health care, and a meaningful education. I wanted to understand what pushed students to keep going when obstacles to justice loomed large. I wondered whether writing helped them persevere, providing them a forum to commemorate successes and comprehend failures.

I share students’ testimonies to help us as readers make greater sense of our own efforts to respond to injustice in our work and daily lives.


Tesis doctoral por Julie Wilson, ex-alumno de SAF 1993

En las siguientes páginas, leerás pasajes escritos por estudiantes universitarios que participaron en el programa de SAF entre 1995 y 2005. Estos pasajes fueron tomados de los proyectos documentales de los estudiantes sobre tradiciones populares de trabajadores agrícolas y de entradas semanales en sus diarios que entregaron al coordinador del programa. Leí todo este material para un proyecto que realicé con SAF que formó parte de mis estudios de doctorado en la Facultad de Educación en UNC-Chapel Hill.

Analicé el trabajo de los estudiantes para entender qué sintieron al aliarse con trabajadores agrícolas que tenían la gran tarea de luchar para obtener derechos humanos, condiciones seguras de trabajo, vivienda habitable, atención de salud básica y una educación valiosa. Quería entender qué motivaba a los estudiantes a seguir adelante cuando se encontraban con grandes obstáculos en su lucha por la justicia. Me preguntaba si escribir les ayudaba a perseverar, dándoles un foro para conmemorar sus éxitos y comprender sus fracasos.

Comparto los testimonios de los estudiantes para ayudarnos, como lectores, a entender nuestros propios esfuerzos para responder a la injusticia que vemos en nuestro trabajo y en la vida diaria.


America the Beautiful, Revisited


by Laura Valencia, 2009 SAF alumni

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

Brown dirt, red juice. Permanent, blood-like splotches stain my hands, radiant against the green, fruited plains – a tell-tale sign that my summer days are spent in the fields. Though each piece of fruit means a strawberry pie, a strawberry smoothie, a strawberry short cake to someone else, to me each means a penny towards next year’s tuition, this week’s food, my sister’s wedding dress. As I pick each piece of fruit, the steady rhythm of agricultural work lulls me into a false sense of relaxation. I mentally plan out my evening and consider sneaking a Cheeto from my pocket. Lean back on my heels, pulling my long sleeves down over my wrists. My mother looks at me, her brow covered in sweat, asking from beneath her face mask, “Mari, estas bien?” I nod. She leans over again, knees in the dirt. Every day, she reminds us that she brought us here for a better life. Every moment she spends in the fields, she imagines better-fed versions of her children sitting firmly at a school desk, attentively scribbling notes with the enthusiasm of top-class students. You can be president, she says, you can be a doctor. You can be a lawyer. Down the row, a man lays on his back, eyes covered. His daughter leans against his knees, his son picking next to him. I turn back to my work, and stand up, bucket in hand (how many today?), to get my timecard punched. I wipe my stained hands on my pants.

Read Laura’s entire essay here.

The Things They Carried | Las cosas que llevaron

by Kyle Warren, SAF Alumni 2009

Luis in Arkansas, Sweet Potato

“We don’t have anywhere else to go. You just have to make the best of a rough situation. It truly is the closest thing we can call home.”

Luis was living in the storage facility where his company would store the old sweet potatoes from last year’s harvest that were due to be cleaned out. His bed was about halfway down the one large “bedroom” where he slept with about 30 other workers. The grower’s crew leaders often got to use the old offices of the warehouse as their bedrooms located at the front of the storage facility. The rank smell of molding sweet potatoes lingered in the air as they rotted in their crates feet away from where Luis slept at night. He told us you just get used to the smell. What he never got used to were the occasional threats he might find lurking around his so called home. Many predators like snakes, scorpions, and spiders lived in the crates that were stored in the middle of the warehouse and they would often come out at night and make their way to where Luis and his coworkers slept. As of yet, Luis hadn’t been bitten or stung nor did he know anyone who was, but he was waiting for the day when someone would eventually get hurt.

Read the full piece here.

Field Notes

Field notes are an integral part of the documentary work that SAF interns and fellows do each year. We believe it’s important to write field notes after each interview in order to remember how you felt, what you saw, said, heard, smelled, tasted and did. These notes not only help to inform the final project, they also serve as a reflection point for students to drink in each experience and form questions and ideas for future meetings. Below are a few excerpts of students’ field notes over the years.

Isabel’s House

Monday July 5th, 2009
by SAF Interns Dayana Diaz, Jennifer Gonzalez & April Simon

The firefighters showed us the way. It’s quite simple, they explained, just go down this road and turn left, then the road will wind way all the way around and you’ll see it up on the right. I love getting directions from native North Carolinians, they seem to have this notion that everyone just knows the area in which they are driving. This was hardly the case for Dayana and me.

Eventually we found it and just as Dayana had been told, it was one street of suburbia plopped in thee middle of farmland. The house we were looking for sits at the end of a cul-de-sac. There is a red pick-up truck in the driveway and a man with a cowboy hat and lasso in the front yard. This must be it.

We approached the house nervously. Neither of us being used to just dropping in on strangers and feeling terribly unsure of what, exactly, it was that we thought we were doing there. I was thinking about how I would feel if someone were to come to my home to poke around and ask me personal questions. It would be prudent to say that I would not have been as gracious as our hosts would turn out to be.


July 29, 2009
by SAF Interns Ignacio Morales & Andres Ramos

Today, we woke up at 5:00 AM to take two patients to the hospital. By the time we got out of the hospital around 12:00 PM, we were already tired and ready to go to sleep. We called Alberto and told him we were on our way to his house for the second interview, but told him it would take us about 4 hours to get to his house. He told us not to worry and that he would be home and ready for the interview when we arrived. I told Andres I felt very tired, and I asked him to drive to Alberto’s place. He agreed to drive all the way and meanwhile, I decided to take a nap in the van. I felt asleep for about 20 minutes, but a bump on the road shook the van and I woke up. Then, I began to think about the first interview with Alberto. He was very polite and respectful during the interview, which I thought was great, but I think he was being so respectful and nice to us that he did not fully expand on his answer to the questions. Perhaps he was shy to talk during the interview or perhaps we did not explain him the interview in detail. Anyway, I wanted this interview to go better than the first one.

I was appreciating the beautiful landscape on the sides of the highway when suddenly a rainstorm came out of nowhere and rain began pouring like I’ve never seen it before. The rain drops where so thick and heavy that that I could clearly hear them crushing against the van’s hood, as if somebody was hammering the hood. I told Andres to slow down and to be extra careful with the slippery road. Finally, after 4 hours of driving under the rain we arrived at Saluda, SC.  As with the first interview, Alberto was already waiting for us outside his porch when we arrived. Unlike the first interview, he was wearing jeans and a shirt that did not compare with the elegance of the cowboy outfit from last time. Once again, we began the conversation by talking about soccer and work.

The Pursuit of Success and Happiness

July 7, 2007
by SAF Interns Meghan Antol & Oscar Vasquez

Oscar and I sat in the grass next to Greensboro College’s soccer field, watching the road for a little red car.  Mid-retreat had just ended, and we were waiting for our documentary subject, Georgina Uresti, to arrive for our first interview.  I had never met Gina (as she liked to be called), and all I knew about her was that she drove a small red car and was an 18-year-old junior at UNC Greensboro.  Oscar had met her through work, and he swore that she was amazing, so of course I was excited to meet her.

The day was extremely hot and humid, and it looked like it was going to rain.  Bugs kept crawling on us as we sat in the grass, and I was sweating and itching all over.  But we didn’t want to move—we didn’t want to miss Gina again.  We had had so much trouble getting in touch with her, and our interview scheduled for last week had fallen through.  She said she would come here to meet us here in near the soccer fields in Greensboro, since she went to college here, so Oscar and I had both decided to stay right where we were.  We didn’t want any excuses this time.

When I was told that I’d be doing a documentary project on farmworkers, I’d pictured interviews among tobacco plants in the fields or in the dark interior of a farmworker’s home.  Where we were currently sitting was the complete opposite.  I never imagined I would be sitting on neat lawns with flowers and green grass across from a fountain and some well-kept brick dorms of the college.