Two Bay Area filmmakers shine spotlight on California farmworker contributions

Two Bay Area filmmakers set out to change perceptions and shed light on the contributions of California farm workers during the height of the pandemic. 

Alex Ontiveros and Joe Poni, from the creative service agency Silicon Valley Latino, embarked on a journey that resulted in a powerful documentary titled "Campesinos: America's Unsung Heroes."

The common portrayal of farm workers often keeps their faces hidden, working diligently under the sun with their backs turned. 

Ontiveros and Poni aimed to present a different perspective.

"Many have misconceptions about this particular community," Ontiveros said. "We set out to show who they really are with this film."

For 22 minutes, "Campesinos: America's Unsung Heroes" spotlights farm workers, sharing their faces, stories, hard work, and struggles.

"It's a tribute film to our farm workers," Poni said. "Without them, there's no restaurants, no clean and healthy eating for our nation."

In 2019, they conceived the idea of highlighting the work of farm workers or "campesinos" in Spanish. It is their first documentary.

"It was time. We had no idea back then that a pandemic would hit, three months later," Ontiveros said. 

With the assistance of the Farmworkers Union and the nonprofit social service group ALAS, they gained the trust of workers and farmers, filming for over 14 months at various locations. 

They captured the daily lives and challenging conditions of farmworkers in Half Moon Bay, Salinas, and the Central Valley.

"Filming was very difficult; we filmed through the pandemic, the outbreaks, and California fires. We had to go out there because the farm workers were out there," Poni said. "The speed at which they pick grapes was incredible; we had to be careful not to get in the way," said Ontiveros.

Released last year, the film has already earned awards at nine different film festivals, including Best Documentary at the LA Documentary Film Festival. It has been screened at more than a dozen tech companies and Bay Area nonprofits to raise awareness for Hispanic Heritage Month.

"I've seen many people leave in tears. It was very impactful and enlightening, to many people who may not have had the background that I do," remarked Mary Stephens, who organized a screening at her workplace in San Jose. Her mother and grandparents were farm workers.

"I feel like I wouldn't be here where I am today if I didn't have that strong family mindset," Stephens added. "Something like this brings so much awareness to others, and that can be a huge impact."

Next month, the film will be screened for members of Congress in Washington, D.C. 

The filmmakers hope to inspire gratitude and change through their work.

"What are some action steps we can take? Make some policy changes," Ontiveros suggested. "Our farm workers need help; many of them don't have workman's comp."

The filmmakers plan to continue advocating for farm workers and raising awareness, with the hope of reaching an even broader audience by getting the film picked up by streaming services. 

Until then, they'll keep sharing this story and the message, one screening at a time.