My Valley, My Story: Local Painter Uses Art to Explore Her “Bracero” Heritage

May 12, 2016

Right now, Clovis Community College is hosting an exhibit from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. It’s all about the Bracero program, a controversial government campaign in the mid-20th century that brought Mexican men into the U.S. seasonally to work the fields. Alongside the Smithsonian exhibit are paintings by Eliana Soto, a local artist whose grandfather was a Bracero. She tells Kerry Klein about exploring her family’s history through art as part of our first-person series My Valley, My Story.

“Bracero means strong arms, strong hands. It means a strong man who leaves the family behind to come work.

“For me, it's not just a strong man having strong arms, but also being a really strong person and doing better things for their family.

“My name is Eliana Soto and I'm a professional artist who lives here in Fresno. I was born in Mexico and raised here in the valley.

“The inspiration for my paintings for the exhibition Untold Stories of Despair came from my own history and background of my family. It was really important for me to do an exhibition that was part of my heritage. Growing up, I would hear stories about my grandfather, about him coming early to California to work a temporary job. He would go back to Mexico, bring money, and he would come back. So I was a bit curious about when he came to California and what were the reasons. So it was really important to share the untold stories about the program that we don't read in history books or hear on TV.

Soto experiments with shadows and darkness to depict the bleakness of life as a Bracero.
Credit Kerry Klein/KVPR

“The subject matter of these paintings are mostly of the men going through the screening process of the Bracero program. Even before getting into the border, the men would have to borrow money to file a working contract, and they would be there for days. Some of them would run out of money. I have read stories where some of them would eat newspaper.

“My artwork still has the monochromatic palette of browns, black and white, because I really wanted to capture the same feel as looking at a photograph, a memory.

“The valley for me means opportunities for families. It means all those stories of despair from the Bracero program, but it also means opportunities. It brings your families back together.

“I'm expecting now; I'm 4 months. I'm starting my own family now."