SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is the second year in a row that California's battled record-breaking fires. The wine country's fires of 2017 were some of the costliest in state history. An artist from Napa Valley has been looking at how these natural disasters have hit a group of people in the community in particular and that's immigrants who are in the country illegally. Rachel Bongiorno has our story.
RACHEL BONGIORNO, BYLINE: Standing on the edge of a manicured vineyard, Arleene Correa Valencia recalls what she saw on the night of the fires last year.
ARLEENE CORREA VALENCIA: The moon was out and it was this red-orange-yellow moon highlighted by the fires. It was something out of a movie. It was beautiful. But underneath all that, there was people, and they were not safe. And they were, you know, hustling up and down these long stretches of vineyard, running to save the grape.
BONGIORNO: Correa was born in Michoacan, Mexico, but was raised in the Napa Valley. She's a DACA recipient, the program that allows undocumented immigrants brought here as children to live and work in the U.S legally. Immigrants play a crucial role in this local economy, making up a majority of the people employed by the wine industry. However, when a natural disaster strikes, undocumented immigrants aren't eligible for most disaster aid or unemployment benefits. And there's the fear, of course, of going to evacuation shelters and being identified as undocumented. During last year's fires...
VALENCIA: There was just a flock of people sleeping in the Walmart parking lot in their cars because they were too afraid to go down to the community college and get a couple blankets and a cot for their children. The fear of being deported is keeping them from being helped.
BONGIORNO: Correa is an artist, an oil painter. She's decided to use her art to show people what it's like to live here as an undocumented immigrant, often invisible, especially in her hometown of Napa. In Correa's studio, a panel of tall oil paintings rests against the wall.
VALENCIA: Yeah, I actually really like this one, and I think I'm going to make it, like, a large one of just her.
BONGIORNO: In one of the paintings, a woman is bent over a large bin of freshly cut grapes. It's dark, so she's wearing a neon orange safety vest, a headlamp and a bandana tied around her mouth and nose to protect herself from the smoke permeating the fields.
VALENCIA: Everyone was coughing - especially them because they were running up and down. But nobody was complaining.
BONGIORNO: There was a lot of pressure on the wine makers to save the grapes from the fires, as well as from smoke damage. The farm workers were feeling that pressure, too.
VALENCIA: We continue working through everything, and we don't have the luxury to say, I'm leaving town because it's unsafe or because I don't want to breathe the air.
BONGIORNO: When wildfires raged earlier this summer across central and northern California, Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a statement saying it would suspend routine immigration enforcement operations in the areas affected by wildfire. But advocacy groups say that the overall climate of fear around ICE gives immigrants little reassurance. Correa's series of paintings about last year's fires are called "En Tiempo De Crisis" - "In Times of Crisis." She says she is trying to humanize the experience of undocumented immigrants and immigrant workers in general.
VALENCIA: My work is to talk about this experience and not only my experience but the collective experience of the Latino immigrant in the Napa Valley.
BONGIORNO: As someone who enjoys a good glass of Napa Valley wine, she also hopes this artwork will change the way people think about what goes into making it. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Bongiorno.
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