Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Immigrants in Maxo Vanka's Murals Speak to a New Generation of Immigrants Today

(The accompanying picture is one of Maxo Vanka's compelling murals, and it depicts the cost of war for immigrants who suffer discrimination and prejudice in their new homeland yet are willing to fight and even lose their lives for that homeland. It is a fitting picture for this post, filed on December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, and the day after the celebration of St. Nicholas, the namesake for the church where Vanka's murals are preserved.)

Veteran readers of this blog know of my admiration for Croatian artist Maxo Vanka, whose breathtaking Depression-era murals are preserved at the St. Nicholas Croation Catholic Church on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pa.

The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka (SPMMMV) recently announced that it has secured a $50,000 matching grant to fund the first phase of a project to preserve and restore the murals, which vividly depict the lives of peasant immigrants to the region who did backbreaking labor in the steel mills, factories, and coal mines to realize the American dream.

SPMMV is also preparing for the May 2011 presentation of A Gift to America, a play by David Demarest that deals with Vanka's work and the haunting murals that cover practically every inch of wall space in the church.

Thus far, more than $235,000 has been raised toward the project, which seeks to preserve an important piece of immigrant history in this country. A second phase of restoration has a fund-raising goal of $350,000.

Although this blog focuses on the U.S. South--and by extension the Global South--the stories told in Vanka's murals reflect the lives of millions of newly arrived Southerners from south of the border--the loneliness, the hard work, the exploitation, the prejudice, the struggle to preserve traditions and yet adapt to a new home.

To get an idea of how close to home Vanka's murals hit let's consider the recent plight of 350 Filipino teachers who came to Louisiana to teach in the public schools but found themselves virtual slaves of the labor contractors who brought them there. The contractors buried the teachers in such bogus debt for fees, travel, and other "expenses" that they had to live in substandard housing with little hope of ever emerging out of their indentured servitude.

With the prompting of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, American Federation of Teachers, Migrant Heritage Commission and Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, the Louisiana Attorney General's Office intervened and succeeded in rescuing the teachers and is in the process of getting them proper visas for their stay here.

The Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers also secured a victory recently for migrant workers when it got a major tomato industry leader, Pacific Tomato Growers, to agree to observe the organization's code of conduct. That code insists that workers have access to a health and safety program and grievance resolution procedures.

The CIW is building a long track record of success in its ongoing fight for immigrant worker rights.

Maxo Vanka would be proud.

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