Héctor Armienta
Héctor Armienta

Opera Cultura, a San José-based opera company known for its exploration of the Latinx-Hispanic cultural experience through music theater and opera, unveiled on Friday an animated song cycle telling the stories of farmworkers in the Bay Area.

The 16-minute work, titled Mi Camino: The Pandemic Stories of Farmworkers and Day Laborers, is composed by Héctor Armienta, the artistic director of Opera Cultura, and features Cecilia Violetta López, soprano, Deborah Martinez Rosengaus, mezzo-soprano, and Emmanuel Mercado, tenor.

Armienta was inspired to write an opera about the unique struggles that farmworkers faced during the coronavirus pandemic because he had noticed a lack of media coverage on the plight of farmworker communities. He recalled seeing images of farmworkers working in the fields last fall with only a bandana as protection, despite the double threats of the pandemic and wildfire smoke.

“Colleagues who worked in that community were telling me about how dire it was for them,” Armienta told SFCV. “Their stories of sacrifice were not being told. I wanted to ensure the public was aware of what they were doing to put food on our tables.”

Armienta knew that to ensure his work accurately reflected the lived experiences of farmworkers in the Bay Area, he needed to speak with them firsthand. He worked with the Ayudando Latinos A Soñar, a nonprofit organization primarily serving the Latino community in Half Moon Bay, and with Harvest Food Bank of Gilroy to identify potential interviewees.

It was no easy task. Many farmworkers — particularly those who are undocumented — are reluctant to publicly share their stories, Armienta said.

Still, he managed to find several people who were willing to speak, including two students who left college due to the pandemic and returned to working in the fields to earn additional income to pay for their studies.

“I either work, or I don’t go to school,” said Stephanie, a third-year college student, in a video interview posted on Opera Cultura’s Youtube channel. “That was my only option, and I just had to get up everyday and go work my a-- off in order to supply for myself.”

Armienta compiled testimonies from several farmworkers such as Stephanie and incorporated their interview transcripts into the texts for his arias. Their stories, however, are not only told through the Spanish text, but are also reflected in the music itself, which draws upon ranchero and mariachi music.

And because the opera was created for a digital audience, there was more room for exploration; the producers could manipulate the background in real time and “place” the singers in virtual worlds modeled after those in Gilroy and Half Moon Bay.

He hopes his audience will leave with an increased sense of empathy for farmworkers and better understanding of the conditions they endured to put food on our tables.

“Many of us just go to the market and assume [the food] comes from somewhere far away,” Armienta said. “We don’t know how it got there, we don’t know the struggles of the people that work in the fields to make sure we have it, and we don’t know about the sacrifices of the farmworkers during the pandemic.

Mi Camino has finished its premiere run, but Opera Cultura will be offering tickets to view the film from July 2 through July 16. More information here