Vermont Humanities recently announced that The Most Costly Journey (El Viaje Más Caro), an anthology of comics that depicts the oral histories of migrant farm workers, will be its Vermont Reads book choice for 2022.
2022 marks the 20th anniversary of the statewide reading program. Every year the organization invites students, adults, and seniors across the state to read the same book and participate in a variety of community activities related to the book's themes. More than 200 Vermont towns, cities, and villages have participated in Vermont Reads to date.
The Most Costly Journey had its genesis at the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury, a free health clinic that serves people who do not have health insurance and those who are underinsured. About half of the clinic's patients are agricultural immigrant workers, most of them from southern Mexico or Central America.
Many of these workers stay close to the farms where they work out of fear of being deported, lack of transportation, or other reasons.
The problems caused by this isolation led nurse Julia Doucet to imagine a series of Spanish-language pamphlets that would help farm workers share their stories with each other. She chose cartooning as the medium for the pamphlets, as comics are common in Latin America and can be enjoyed by people of all ages and literacy levels.
To make the comics, Doucet, other clinic staff and volunteers, and faculty and staff from the University of Vermont's Department of Anthropology and UVM Extension's Bridges to Health Program collected stories from migrant workers.
The Vermont Folklife Center helped develop the project's collaborative methods and connect New England cartoonists - including Tillie Walden, Glynnis Fawkes, and Marek Bennett - to the workers' stories to create the pamphlets.
Illustrated in a variety of styles, each short chapter describes aspects of life as an immigrant farm worker in Vermont: crossing the southern border, struggling with English, adapting to winter, growing gardens, raising children, dealing with health crises, and working long hours.
Grants from the UVM Humanities Center and the Vermont Community Foundation funded a series of English translations of the pamphlets. A Kickstarter campaign helped raise the capital needed to print the English-language version of The Most Costly Journey, which includes a foreword by Vermont novelist Julia Alvarez.
“We were so surprised and excited to hear that El Viaje was chosen for Vermont Reads 2022! said Heidi Sulis, the Executive Director of the Open Door Clinic, in a news release. “What a thrill to have Vermont Humanities share this incredible collective work with a broader geographic base and a more diverse Vermont audience.”
Cartoonist Marek Bennett, one of the four editors of the book, said that the Vermont Reads choice “calls much attention to these local stories of resilience and survival, stories that have gone untold and unseen by most Vermonters for many years. It multiplies and leverages all the work that's gone into the project from all our storytellers, artists, field workers, and translators.”
The Most Costly Journey has been shortlisted for the inaugural Graphic Medicine International Collective Award for the outstanding health-related comic project completed or published in 2021. The winner will be announced on July 16.
Vermont Reads 2022 programming will begin with an in-person panel discussion at the 118 Elliot gallery in Brattleboro on Thursday, July 14, at 7 p.m. The panel will feature three editors of the book: Julia Doucet from the Open Door Clinic, Andy Kolovos from the Vermont Folklife Center, and cartoonist Marek Bennett.
The presentation will be livestreamed and recorded so those who can't attend in person may view the discussion. Register to attend event at bit.ly/672-migrant.
An exhibit at 118 Elliot will share images and stories from migrant workers' journeys and of their lives on Vermont farms, brought together from four distinct bodies of work: “The Golden Cage Project” (2007), “Invisible Odysseys” (2012), “El Viaje Más Caro” (2015), and a selection of paintings and sculptures by the migrant artist El Emigrante.
Vermont Humanities invites communities across the state to take part in Vermont Reads 2022 by planning projects centered around The Most Costly Journey and its themes of migration, farming, mental health, cartooning, family, labor movements, and the Latinx experience, among others.
Vermont Reads 2022 projects can begin as early as July 1 and must conclude by June 30, 2023. Visit vtreads.org to learn more about the book, view a list of upcoming events related to the book's themes, apply to host a Vermont Reads program, and discover ways to support Vermont's migrant farm worker community.