Documentary, art exhibit takes look at role of Hispanics in Red River Valley

University of Minnesota Crookston
Farm Forum

Minnesota Crookston’s Commitment to Preserving the History of Hispanics in the Red River Valley Chronicled in Prairie Public Documentary and Art Exhibit

“Roots of the Red River Valley” exhibit on display in November 2019 on the UMN Crookston campus.

CROOKSTON, Minn. — University of Minnesota Crookston employee Ken Mendez and alumnus Victoria Ramirez (2002) were two of three panelists on a discussion and premiere screening of “Ésta Es Mi Casa-This is My Home,” Prairie Public’s original documentary about the Hispanic migration to the Red River Valley.

The panel discussion and screening took place Jan. 21.

The documentary chronicles the migration of Hispanic field workers to North Dakota and Minnesota from Texas and Mexico to help with hoeing beet fields, tending crops, and harvesting. These families’ migration stories are as compelling as those of the families that migrated centuries earlier. They took extensive risks and experienced culture clashes, climate shock, and language barriers. Now, one and two generations later, these migrant workers have assimilated and settled in the region. Their children and grandchildren are working as professionals. They have contributed their own cultural stamp to the region’s art, cuisine, diversity and economy.

Mendez and Ramirez, who works for Polk County Social Services, were joined on the panel by Martha Castanon, Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. Mendez and Ramirez discussed the history of their families.

Mendez discussed his family, including his father who arrived in the region in 1927. In addition, he discussed the Ramona Mendez Scholarship, a scholarship honoring his mother to help future generations in their pursuit of their educational endeavors.

Ramirez has made a substantial impact on the region by promoting diversity, multiculturalism, equality, and human rights through demonstrated leadership, service, and advocacy on behalf of underrepresented populations and diverse individuals as evidenced by receiving the Spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Award in 2018.

Crookston Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause will also be featured in an extended cut of the documentary to be aired on Prairie Public later this winter. The documentary is scheduled to premiere on Prairie Public on Jan. 28 at 9 p.m.

Mendez also discussed a project he has worked on, an art exhibition entitled “Roots of the Red River Valley: Through the Lens of Russell Lee.” Mendez, along with the help of former UMN Crookston employee Megan Beck and current student Lauren Wallace, put together the exhibit currently on display at Heritage Hall at the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County in Moorhead, Minn. The project offers an intimate look at one of the region’s economic pillars in a photographic history of Polk County’s 1937 sugar beet harvest. The exhibition includes 84 images from acclaimed photographer Russell Lee, taken primarily near Fisher, Crookston, and East Grand Forks. In Roots of the Red River Valley, Lee’s images are ordered into three distinct categories highlighting the role of the farmer, migrant worker, and factory. The exhibition invites viewers to ponder the lives of rural and migrant laborers, particularly their relationships, families, and homes.

Russell Lee was born in Illinois in 1903. He attended Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. He left his work in chemical engineering to take up painting, which in turn, led to his keen interest in photography. During the Great Depression, Lee was employed by the federal Farm Security Administration on a photographic documentation project. He joined a team under the direction of economist and photographer Roy Stryker that also included Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. Lee documented the human stories of segregation, the Great Depression, WWII, internment camps, and much more. His work with the Farm Security Administration brought Lee to the Red River Valley in 1937. Following his work with the FSA he enlisted in the military and served as a photographer with the Air Transport Command. He finished his career as the first instructor of photography at the University of Texas.

“This exhibit is impressive on several fronts and definitely worth viewing. First, the photography draws me in as a viewer, to ponder the history of farming and the immigrant worker in our area,” Mara Hanel, executive director of the Northwest Minnesota Arts Council in Warren, Minn., said upon her original viewing of the art exhibit. “Their relationships, their families and homes,”

“The artwork tells a story and promotes dialogue around the images depicted. Second, the size and clarity of the enlarged photographs is impressive. Third, images depicted have strong compositional elements, which speaks to the trained eye of these artistic photographers,”

“Roots of the Red River Valley: Through the Lens of Russell Lee” is sponsored by American Crystal Sugar. UMN Crookston held a premiere for the exhibition on campus in November 2019 with 100 visitors on opening night. In addition, “Roots of the Red River Valley:Through the Lens of Russell Lee” was featured during the 2019 Torch and Shield event with UMN president Joan Gabel in attendance.

“Roots of the Red River Valley” exhibit on display in November 2019 on the UMN Crookston campus.