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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

'A New Way To Look At The World': Cartoonists Collaborate With Farmworkers In 'El Viaje Más Caro'

A book cover.
Open Door Clinic, Courtesy
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El Viaje Más Caro, or The Most Costly Journey, is an initiative from the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury, along with several other partners, that shares the stories and experiences of migrant farmworkers in Vermont. The stories are told using illustrations drawn by New England cartoonists.Now, these stories have been compiled into an English language anthology that promises to be unlike almost any other book or graphic novel you've ever encountered.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Julia Doucet, an outreach nurse and case manager with the Open Door Clinic, and Marek Bennett, a New Hampshire-based cartoonist and educator who illustrated three of the comics in the collection and helped design the book that collects them. Their conversation below about how and why the project got started has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Julia, let's start with you. Tell me how this project got started, and why comics were the medium that you chose. Because I understand at first, this was a mental health initiative, basically.

Julia Doucet: Yeah, it started with our patient population. About 50% of the patients that we see in our clinic are immigrant farmworkers, from South and Central America. And we were seeing patient after patient who had some really pretty serious physical manifestations of illness: stomach aches, and fatigue and headaches. And it became evident that these were physical manifestations of a life that was full of stress, and loneliness, isolation and being away from everything known and familiar.

And so, I met with a woman named Ximena Mejia, who was the director, at the time, at Middlebury College's counseling center. And she talked about projects that she had done with migrant workers. And as we were finishing the meeting, she said, ‘You know, there's just a lot of power in telling a story. If we have five different people on five different farms in the middle of Vermont, who can't connect with each other, if they can read a story that someone else told that mirrors their experience, then it lets them know that they're not alone in what they're experiencing.’

And I was sitting in my car, listening to VPR, when a piece came on about the Center for Cartoon Studies, which is based in White River Junction. And so I reached out to them and got connected with an amazing artist named Tillie Walden, who did our first story, and then got connected with an amazing team, which includes Marek and UVM Department of Anthropology and the Vermont Folklife Center.

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Mitch Wertlieb: Marek Bennett, I want to ask you about that, because as one of the illustrators here, I imagine there had to be a lot of collaboration between the storyteller and the artists before even a single comic was completed. What was that challenge like for you? How did you go about it?

Marek Bennett: The first one that I drew was Jose’s story – all our storytellers use comic’s names, that aren't their real names – and Jose’s story had been recorded already, in an interview at the clinic. So I worked from a transcript. And I drew out a draft of part of the story.

A cartoon cover.
Credit Open Door Clinic, Courtesy
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Something Inside, a cartoon illustrated by Marek Bennett, is one story in the new collection.

Jose got to comment on the draft, and the comments were so helpful.

I went back, based on his comments, you know, "This isn't fast enough; this isn't confusing enough; I want the effect to be a little more like this," and I took those comments, and I re-drew the whole story.

I wanted to start with a map. But the way he pointed to things on the map in his story wasn't in, like, a north to south or west-east order, so I had to turn this familiar map. And as I turned the map of North America sideways to fit his story, I realized, "Oh, I'm seeing the world from a different angle as an artist, and then I can go in and put the panels and the characters into that different angle."

And it was just, it was … for me, that was a really beautiful moment of realizing my old habits and the way I've looked at my communities in the world – that's not going to be enough. I need to really listen to this story, and step back. And I have a new way to look at the world.

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Sadly, though, by the time I was done with that draft, and we wanted to get his comments on the second draft, he had disappeared. He had left without leaving any forwarding address. And he says at the end of his story, you know, “I haven't seen my daughter in years. She's growing up. I want to go back and see her soon.”

So I took that as an optimistic ending. Hopefully, he made it back to his family.

Mitch Wertlieb: But you still don't know, at the time that we're talking?

Marken Bennett: We may never know. We don't know.

Mitch Wertlieb: Now, Julia having a resource like these comics, this collection, it's important. But you know, in the end, it seems like it's all about how the patients use them, what this can do to bring about good outcomes for people. What can you tell us about the effect that these comics have had, to the extent that you know, at this point – both on the people whose stories get told in them and the people who read them?

Julia Doucet: That actually came as quite a surprise to me. I had gone into the project thinking that the sharing of the comics would be what was really freeing. And what I actually found was that it wasn't in the sharing as much as it was in the telling.

That's best illustrated by a woman who started telling her story, and she realized she had more to say. And she opened up about a history of domestic abuse that she hadn't shared previously.

A cover of a comic.
Credit Open Door Clinic, Courtesy
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Painful to Remember is the illustrated story of Jose, a farmworker who came to Vermont from Latin America. Jose edited the comic, drawn by Marek Bennett.

And she used that story to share with her family, who she had never shared that experience with before. And she was able to give them the Spanish language booklet and then say, “This was me, and this was my experience.”

An offshoot of it was that the community became really interested in their stories. Because this was a shadow population, and because of the language barrier, a lot of neighbors didn't know their Spanish speaking neighbors, these lives that often went on in parallel to their own. That's why our first anthology was actually in English, but we will be putting out a Spanish Anthology, hopefully by the end of this summer.

Mitch Wertlieb: Marek Bennett, who are you hoping reads these comics?

Marek Bennett: I think anybody who eats food or has a job in the United States should pay attention to these stories, because it connects us all to realize that we're all part of these systems.

I started doing historical research on local New England towns. And then this project came up on my radar. And I realized, “Wait a minute, what is this community I've never even heard of, or had contact with? I've traveled in Vermont, I thought I knew these communities.” And it turns out, by design, by the way our economy is designed, by the way we produce our food in this country, I wasn't meant to know these stories. I wasn't meant to see the people who produce the milk I put my coffee this morning.

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And just pulling back that veil, not reporting on, but helping get the story out to people, I think that was really inspiring to me as an artist.

Julia Doucet: One of our goals that we really had is going back to the original transcript in Spanish when we were putting the words back in with the pictures and making sure that their voices came through, that it wasn't our translation of what we thought they were saying, making sure that it was their words choosing to tell us their story.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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