Sunflower Man, image used with permission

On Sunday April 30, Mayworks brings together three performances about migrant activism in Journey to Belong. This event features the drag performance Sarap, the short film The Sunflower Man, and the visual exhibit My Journey on the “Pathway.” According to Mayworks, “These bold and beautiful works are brought together for their common thread of migrant activism, their shared investigation of the power of art to empower, express, and create change, and their connection to our deep desire to belong.” The performance is on Sunday April 30, from 2 p.m. – 4 p.m. at the Alliance Française Theatre (24 Spadina Rd.), in Toronto.

I had the opportunity to interview Heryka Miranda, the co-creator of the Sunflower Man dance performance with Juan Luis Mendoza de la Cruz before the performance. We talked about where the project started, the process of its creation and how art is linked to activism. One of the culminating events for Luis and Heryka was performing on Parliament Hill in October 2016 and planting the seed of justice for migrant works. Read on to find out more.  

The beginning of the project

Heryka Miranda: The Sunflower Man project was really something that was unexpected and unplanned. When I arrived in St. Catharines in 2014, my friend Evelyn Encalada invited me to meet “my Guatemalan migrant farm worker neighbours.” It was my first farm visit. She introduced me as the woman who does healing with dance. I had no idea what I could do to help, and after this, I began to wonder if I could do something with dance and kinesiology. 

I started connecting with different organizations, groups, and individuals that do work with migrant farm workers. I met this amazing Colombian, Anglican priest. The season was almost over but he invited me to come with him to do some farm visits. So I started doing farm visits with him and started meeting a bunch of migrant farm workers, specifically Mexican migrant men. I was just asking them about how they use their bodies. They were really surprised because not many people ask them that question. So, timidly at first, they showed me physically what they did all day long. Among the farm workers I met were strawberry, peach, apples, tobacco, and Christmas tree harvesters and workers. In that month I met so many migrant farm workers.  

The farm workers would meet at the church and so eventually I proposed an introduction to dance movement workshop. It was during these workshops that I met Luis.  

Meeting Juan Luis Mendoza de la Cruz  

Heryka Miranda:  Luis was at my dance movement workshop and was intrigued and curious but a little unsure of my motives. So after the dance sessions he came up and asked me “What is this exploring feeling and emotions through your body? What exactly are you trying to do?” I told him, “Well, it is a real thing. We come into this world with only our bodies and they record our lives, and then we leave this world. Our aches and pains, the knots we get in our throats sometimes, the things that will not let you sleep — these are examples of our bodies and our feelings and emotions interacting.” Luis understood what I was talking about and wanted to hear more. After a while, he asked what I was planning to do with this. I wasn’t sure. I talked about how I knew the farm workes were leaving soon, because the season was ending, so I was hoping to start in the next season. There was an opening and interest from Luis though and so I said “You know, Luis, we have the month of August.  Would you mind if we went to visit your field and start this week?” I explained that we were going to create a work of art, and he was taken aback by that. So then I said, “Well, I am just curious about how it would be to explore movement that comes from the sunflowers and being in the sunflower field.” He agreed to that. 

Land dancing and learning from each other

Heryka Miranda:  We scheduled a meeting for a Sunday. “A week before I went over and confirmed. He was tired, and sweaty, after a day of hard work but confirmed. Then I asked Luis an odd question. Had he ever walked on these fields with bare feet? He explained that “no,” he only came there to work. I noticed he was tired and hadn’t eaten anything yet, so I asked, “If you have time, and if you don’t mind, may I give you a preview of the session so you know what to expect next Sunday?” He agreed. Then I said “Could you do me a favour, I am not going to ask you to do anything you don’t want to, and you can say no to this but I hope you don’t, but would you mind taking off your work boots and your socks?” He was very shy about it. I was already barefoot, and he saw my feet and was giggling at me. But he took of his boots and socks. We both started walking on the sunflower field.  We experienced how delicious and relaxing the earth felt. We were slipping, sometimes we’d get stuck in a clump of dirt. We were just exploring the textures of the soil — the dry parts, the wet parts, the high parts, and the low parts. I asked him to allow the body to respond — allow himself to slide and maybe even go further.  Then there were moments when I would ask him to pause and then then look up into the horizon. At the end, we both said, “I can’t wait to see you Sunday” and I dropped him home to the old trailer home which was his accommodation. 

I came back the next Sunday, and asked him if anything happened this week from the experience walking on this soil in bare feet. He told me this story:  

“Yes, I want to share something with you. There was something very profound that happened to me. I was driving the tractor and I did something wrong and I got stuck in a ditch. I tried to reverse the tractor and all the soil flew all over the tractor. The tractor got filthy and dirty. I had soil on my face, on my hands, everything. I was just drenched in soil. I got so angry because, for me, that meant that I had to work even more now because I had to wash the tractor, get to soil out of the tires, and all that stuff. I was angry and then I stopped for a minute. I thought about walking on the soil. Then I turned off the tractor. I got out of the tractor and I went down on my knees. I started touching the soil with my hands and I asked the soil for forgiveness. I said, you know what, the soil is not dirty, I’m not dirty. I know that I’m not dirty.  And then I started weeping.”

As he finished sharing this story, both of us were in tears.  That set the tone for everything else that happened.  

It was quite an opportunity to work on the sunflower field and land. During the month of August we met once or twice a week, mostly on Sundays his only day off. We just explored the sunflowers, his stories, his expertise working the land and flowers, different ways he can find relief in terms of the tension and the stress that he feels because of work. He would start telling these stories, about his childhood, when he used to take off his socks and run around in his town, barefoot, in Mexico. One of the things that he loves so much about being a migrant farm worker is that he gets up super early and he gets to greet the sunrise. He says he wakes the earth every morning. He is such a poet. I learned so much about the isolation, and the homesickness and the loneliness that he experienced.  I learned about the temporary farm worker program, the loneliness and the degradation is a direct result of the system through which farm workers come to this country.

Being a migrant farm worker

Heryka Miranda: Luis came to Canada as part of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, which brings in mostly Mexican and Jamaican workers. Last year, the program celebrated its 50th year and there is a lot going on to try and push changes to the program. Some really interesting things happened because of that but witnessing him and accompanying him and telling his stories, and there are the moments when I would ask him to caress the sunflowers, and it was so beautiful to see his hands because you can tell his hands have been working for a long time, so there is a dryness, the inflammation that he has, the cuts the bruises that he has on his hands, really spoke a lot, and the issues he has with his back and other things, which is rally seeing these rough, dry hands finding lightness and softness, with the sunflower, took me over the edge. I was so in awe of how beautiful, and how tender, and how he approached them, and these moments of ecstacy when he becomes so joyful. It was so amazing.

When he first introduced me to sunflowers, I was completely mesmerized.  We walked through fields of little baby sunflowers that were just sprouting. Then to another field where there were these strong green stems with the large generous leaves. Then he took me to another sunflower field and there were these stunning flowers. They weren’t blooming yet, they were still all curled up.  When I came back the next week and they were like out and blooming, in all their sunflower-y glory. Then he said, you know what, this sunflower field, we are going to have to get rid of them we are going to have to kill them because they bloomed already and no one is going to want to buy them. They have to be curled up and reticent, and not open to go to market.  He gives different characters to the sunflowers, pointing to one and saying “This one right here you know, it is a little bit angry, it’s not ready yet.” He talks about planting the seeds so that the sunflower will have enough room to express itself, but not express itself too much because then they won’t be sold. I learned a lot about preparing the land, the seeds they use, fertilizing the land, the sun, the way that sunflowers dance with the sun. Luis watches them as he eats his lunch and says they really do dance as they turn and turn to follow the sun.  

Canada owes me something

Heryka Miranda: There was no idea of doing a dance piece, it was just about exploring land dance in a sunflower field. It was Luis who said, “You know I am 50 years old, I have been coming to Canada for 25 years now. I’ve always loved dancing but I’ve always been embarrassed and never thought I could do it. One of my dreams is to retire in Canada but I know that’s not an option. However, Canada owes me something. Not just me, it owes something to many of my companeros.”

When he said that, something in me got really excited about the opportunities to use this dance as a tool to help him make a mark. He would say just like a sunflower flower seed he would like to leave something for the next generation of farmworkers, to make the system better. 

I did not know how I was going to do it, but I decided to use my privilege and position to create my research study around this and he is the one who gave me permission to do it.

We really wanted to incorporate our identities and experiences and our connection and reclamation of our native identities and connection to the land. We both began to explore. We would watch YouTube videos that inspired us, and try new sequences and choreograph together. Central to the piece is connecting to heartbeat of the earth and honouring the sunrises. I asked him to incorporate that moment when he connected to the soil and found he was not dirt. I asked him to show his hands, because his hands tell so much. The dance takes a total of 15 minutes, but it became our seed and it took on a life of its own.

Luis and Heryka go to Parliament Hill

Heryka Miranda: We have had documentaries made by a few amazing documentary makers including Monica Gutierrez and Esery Mondesir. There was a write up  and video by Brock University, where I am a Master’s student. We were also featured in a newspaper article. The newspaper article captured the attention of Niki Ashton, the Member of Parliament from Churchill—Keewatinook Aski in Manitoba.

I got a call asking if we would be interested in performing our piece for precarious worker forum in Ottawa at the end of October 2016. I told Luis. He was supposed to leave in the first week of October, and they already had the plane tickets for him and everything. That started quite an ordeal, but Luis was indefatigable. The Mexican Consulate denied his request at first but then he called and advocated for himself. Before he called the consulate, he called me and said “I am going to call the Mexican Consulate but I want to let you know that, if I am not allowed to come back to Canada to work, that’s okay but I know that I can dance.” I felt so bad when I suggested that I just show the film or he help me train a person he trusts who would be here. He was adamant. This was his project too. He convinced his employer and everything, but that’s another story.  

We got to Ottawa, and we did a performance. Niki Ashton was so lovely and she can speak Spanish, so that was great. We met a bunch of activists because 2016 was also the year of the Harvesting Freedom Caravan. We had a huge standing ovation. The last thing Luis said on Parliament Hill, was “Canada owes me something.” Then he started tearing up and he gave the mic to me. I said “Yes, permanent residency and a path to Canadian citizenship.” Then everyone started applauding. It was such a moment there, as our words and the applause echoed through Parliament Hill.  

As the panel discussion started, Luis went around and gave a sunflower seeds to nearly everybody there, he went to every table. We call that planting sunflower seeds of justice. Everything had a purpose and intention, and it was political power for him to advocate and demand migrant justice from an accessible medium used in arts. The message was given verbally and non verbally. 

Image: Sunflower Man (used with permission)

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Maya Bhullar

Maya Bhullar has over 15 years of professional experience in such diverse areas as migration, labour, urban planning and community mobilization. She has a particular interest in grassroots engagement,...